It didn’t rank as the biggest surprise on the opening night of the CIAC football playoffs, but Ridgefield’s 28-21 win over West Haven caught the attention of the state and to many ranked high on the upset list.
It should not have.
For one, we all get caught up in seedings in assessing the outcome of state tournament games in all sports. Any time a lower seed defeats a higher one, the term “upset” is invariably used. Other factors are not taken into account.
And this is in no way meant to disparage West Haven, which was ranked either No. 2 or 3 in the state polls and was the lone school outside of Darien and New Canaan that had been discussed as a possible tenant of the top spot after championship Saturday. The Blue Devils certainly had a strong resume with quality wins.
I have not seen any teams outside the FCIAC this year, and I am a big believer in the eye test. Most of my West Haven knowledge came from what I read or talking to writers who cover the state.
But I have seen Ridgefield several times and knew it was much more talented than your typical seventh seed in Class LL. The Tigers have as many offensive weapons as any team in the FCIAC. They came into the postseason 8-2. They moved the ball early until quarterback Drew Fowler got injured in the second quarter of a loss to the Rams. And while Trinity Catholic failed to live up to expectations, the Tigers’ other defeat was hardly a terrible setback.
Ridgefield Kevin Callahan said his team’s strength of schedule — the FCIAC went 4-1 on Tuesday, with the lone loss being a head to head match with Darien defeating Greenwich — was much like West Haven’s and thus an asset.
“I think the opponents we play are the best in the state,” Callahan said. “We’ve faltered twice but still came from a competitive league.”
Tuesday’s win highlighted both what the Tigers do best and how far they have come since a tremendous opening-night comeback win against Trumbull. The offense is high octane: Fowler has one of the state’s top receiving combinations in Chris Longo and Collin Lowe, and Shane Palmer is a dangerous and versatile back. Not surprisingly, Fowler threw scoring passes to each receiver and Palmer ran for a third score.
What has made the Tigers a more complete team is an improved defense and on Tuesday the adaptability to become a ball-control team against West Haven.
After falling behind 21-7 on Tuesday, Ridgefield pitched a second-half shutout.
“A big key has been the development of the defense during the course of the season,” Callahan said. “Offensively we knew we were both good and savvy, but the defense has gotten better.”
The Tigers took the second-half kickoff and held onto the ball for over six minutes before Palmer scored.
“We got businesslike with that first drive,” Callahan said. “That sort of set the tempo. We usually score pretty quickly and don’t usually take a lot of time off the clock.”
Remarkably, the Tigers held West Haven to just three possessions after the break. Their winning score came with just under six minutes left.
I visited Tiger Hollow for a practice in early September. The players were both still raw from missing the playoffs last year on a tiebreaker, but more so extremely confident. They knew they had the necessary talent level to reach their goals, and Callahan said that was evident on Tuesday.
“They have established themselves as a team,” Callahan said. “I think they believe in what we accomplished and they believed in our game plan and that we could put them in the best situations.”
Class LL is loaded, and next up on Monday night is a semifinal at Shelton, at No. 6 another misleading seed. If you consider it an accurate measuring stick, the Gaels lost a wild 59-52 shootout with West Haven on Nov. 11.
“Clearly Shelton is similar to us in that they come out of a tough league,” Callahan said. “They also have tough losses.”
Potentially waiting in the final is a game against Darien, the No. 1 team in the state. The schools did not meet during the regular season.
That is a possible conversation for next week. The Tigers know the only game that matters is the next one. It has brought them to the brink of a state final. If they should falter, it won’t be due to a lack of maturity.
And if Ridgefield advances that far, it won’t be an upset.