My Point

Staying True To The System Carries Ridgefield To 4th FCIAC Title In 5 Years

Ridgefield’s Matt Knachel looks to pass to a teammate during tonight’s FCIAC championship win over Westhill. Knachel was named the most valuable player. (Mark Conrad)

RIDGEFIELD — There is crying in basketball.

Amos Grey dropped that little fun fact tonight after the Ridgefield boys basketball team motored to a 64-37 win over Westhill for the FCIAC championship.

Tigers coach Andrew McClellan started removing his senior starters with just over two minutes remaining, first Matthew Eiben and Emmett O’Malley, then Grey, who started the season as the team’s most experienced player, who got to take the final bow.

“As a senior it feels even better than last year,” said Grey after the Tigers became just the third school to win three successive conference titles, feats accomplished by Danbury from 1990-92 and Trinity Catholic from 2003-05. “I don’t know if you saw me but as soon as I got out of the game I just straight up and cried. I love these guys, they work really, really hard in practice and we really deserve this.”

To sustain success — and Ridgefield’s fourth title in five years does more than pass the eye test — there needs to be a designed system. Ridgefield during this run has seldom been built solely on seniors. Well, last year there were eight. Others play parts of varying degrees but they still sit in the back seat. It is the seniors who get the keys and drive.

Ridgefield’s Dylan Veillette scores over Westhill’s Aidan Lamothe. (Mark Conrad)

“I don’t want to say it’s my team, but Coach Mac looks at me to lead the guys,” Grey said. “Therefore there’s more responsibility on me to make sure the boys go in the right direction. When I see this I’m like a proud parent.”

This was an old-fashioned net cutting ceremony, the benefits of the Tigers (15-1) earning the No. 1 seed and getting home-court advantage in this pandemic-altered postseason. Ridgefield coach Andrew McClellan extolled throughout the year the collaborative effort that kept the Tigers atop the standings.

Tonight the numbers didn’t lie, and they are illuminating for the coaches who have already sat down and mapped courses for stopping the Tigers next year.

Ridgefield’s Matthew Eiben goes up for a dunk. Eiben is one of the team’s three seniors. (Mark Conrad)

Justin DiFabio led Ridgefield with 16 points on four 3-pointers. He is a junior. Dylan Veillette, who made a name for himself by dominating the paint at a time when there are few true centers, scored 12 points. He’s a freshman. Game most valuable player Matt Knachel finished with 10. He’s a junior.

Meet the nucleus of next year’s team.

The Tigers were too hyped early tonight and missed a number of easy shots that could have given them earlier propulsion. The sixth-seeded Vikings (10-6), who had won five straight games to reach the final, took advantage and led late in the first quarter, 10-7.

Ben Klotz — another junior, by the way — made a layup and soon the Tigers were on a 28-6 run that removed all mystery from the second half, which became a coronation.

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“I thought our defense was outstanding again tonight,” McClellan said. “After the first quarter they struggled to get quality shots and that allowed us to get out in transition just enough to score some buckets.”

JeySon Slade brings the ball upcourt for Westhill. (Mark Conrad)

If there was one unknown coming into tonight it was the Tigers’ mental state. Their biggest rivalry this year was with New Canaan, even though the teams met just twice. But the Rams won the first meeting, ending Ridgefield’s 21-game winning streak and demonstrating that, yes, it was beatable.

The Tigers responded in Tuesday night’s semifinal rematch with an 11-0 run in the last six minutes to take over a one-point game.

That was a ticket to the final, not the right to the trophy.

“New Canaan was a very emotional game so you’d think it would be harder to get into this game but we just treated this like the rest of our 15 games,” Matt Eiben — graduating senior — said. “Coming into the season we said we were going to win one game 16 times and we just took this like every other game. We wanted to win the walkthrough, win the warmup and especially win the two practices before the game. We just dominated the details and got a championship.”

The Tigers’ Amos Grey cuts down the net during postgame ceremonies. (Mark Conrad)

McClellan got a chance to use all of his personnel in the biggest game of the year and was rewarded, after the opening minutes, with the kind of results that please him most.

“We’ve had nine or 10 guys play all year long, we talked a little bit about it at halftime,” McClellan said. “There’s a little bit of pressure to win so I think some guys were pressing a little bit offensively but then we got settled in and scored some points there. Had some good offensive possessions.”

Given his soon-to-be stature as a graduate of the league’s current best boys basketball program, and having viewed it from dual perspectives, Grey was asked to reveal the secret sauce.

“It’s a mix of two things,” Grey said. “The coaches are invested year-round, 365 days, they do not take a day off. I guarantee you tomorrow Coach Mac, Coach (AJ) Romeo and Coach (Joe) Wolff will be watching the film of our game to see what we could have done better. No days off for them and none for the kids. It’s the whole mentality throughout the program. We have a set system and if we follow it that’s what leads to success.”