Ridgefield coach Andrew McClellan had no difficulty finding fault following Friday’s 62-45 road win at Westhill.
A 13-0 run put the Tigers ahead by 24 points less than two minutes into the second half. His players soon turned the engine onto autopilot for most of the remainder of the game.
“We have a long way to go,” McClellan said. “I was not happy with the second half. It was an immature second half. It got to the point where I think they thought they were going to win decidedly and then we did some immature things.”
Left unsaid was the poise that led Ridgefield to the big lead in the first point.
Until four years ago the program had never reached the FCIAC championship game. If you mentioned Ridgefield basketball, the response throughout the rest of the league was how it had one of the better home-court advantages because of the travel for other teams and a strong fan base.
It was a solid but unspectacular program.
But in a memorable 2017 FCIAC final because of the rivalry as well as the significant transformation that was trumpeted, the Tigers won their first title with a win over Wilton in a packed Alumni Hall on the Fairfield University campus.
That was the first of three championship runs by Ridgefield.
“You can see the energy and togetherness in our program is very similar every single year,” McClellan said. “I think there’s a certain confidence now because of our success.”
Prior to 2017, inner-city or private schools had won every league title in the sport save for 1982-83, when Trumbull, led by Villanova-bound Harold Jensen, interrupted the party.
During the last four years, five of the eight spots in the final were occupied by suburban schools. With Trinity Catholic closed, there is a good chance that trend will continue this year.
Ridgefield was hit the harder by graduation losses this offseason than at any other time during this run. There are a lot of points, rebounds, assists and intangibles to make up.
A look at the Ridgefield roster would seem to necessitate a lot of introductions to the casual FCIAC fan. The player everyone will be most familiar with is Amos Grey, though he will be asked to play a much bigger role this season.
Yes, there is a Knachel, but not Chris, one of last year’s leaders, but Matthew, his younger brother. Very close watchers will remember Emmett O’Malley and Matt Eiben as valuable but injury-riddled supporting players. They are now starters.
McClellan even has two freshmen playing key minutes, and both Dylan Viellette and Alister Walsh looked on Friday as they will be up to the task.
“It’s not just the big-name players,” Grey said. “Ridgefield produces a ton of talent each year. People are going to find out about these guys.”
Justin DiFabio is the fifth starter and he made four 3-pointers against Wilton.
“We’re going to have a bunch of different kids who can score on any given night,” McClellan said. “That’s always been our thing. Last year we had four or five guys.”
Ridgefield fired the shot heard around the league on opening night with a 43-point win against Trumbull. That margin of victory almost never happens, especially when the losing team was picked to be a contender by many.
In the Tigers’ two wins, they got off to hot starts and were able to dictate tempo.
“Both games we jumped out to early, early leads,” Grey said. “We want to try and get the advantage every single game. We’re going to play to the last tip and we are also going to play from the moment the ball tips off. We like to say stacking possessions together, which means putting possessions together. We play one possession at a time from the first second to the last second of the game and try to take none off.”
The philosophy has worked the last four years. And if the opening week is an accurate indication, it will continue in Ridgefield this season as well.
It is going to take a while to get a read on this season, and if the pandemic causes teams to pause and quarantine we may never get a fully accurate one.
But lets face it, as much as the appreciation players and coaches have to play again, fans still care about the race for the FCIAC title.
So after the first week, I am holding onto my Ridgefield, New Canaan and Wilton stock, maintaining my position with Staples and buying shares of St. Joseph and Fairfield Ludlowe.
We won’t get our first look at Wilton, which started late because of a two-week pause, until the next few days. Staples so far looks very much like a sleeper, as does Ludlowe, which split two games. And St. Joseph impressed in a pair of wins and may be a title contender.
Right now I’m selling my shares of Trumbull. It is possible after tomorrow’s game against New Canaan it could be 0-3.
The schedule breaks nicely this week. By Saturday night, with no postponements, I will have seen six of the aforementioned seven teams.
No. 1 Ridgefield (2-0) vs. No. 8 Stamford (1-1)
No. 2 New Canaan (2-0) vs. No. 7 Fairfield Warde (1-1)
No. 3 St. Joseph (2-0) vs. No. 6 Fairfield Ludlowe (1-1)
No. 4 Staples (2-0) vs. No. 5 Wilton (0-0)