FAIRFIELD — After five years of facing what seemed like an impenetrable barrier, the Fairfield Warde boys basketball team last winter finally made it past the opening round of the FCIAC Tournament, overcoming a nine-point halftime deficit to defeat Staples.
Though the Mustangs were defeated by Trinity Catholic in the semifinals, they ended the regular season with the third-best record in the conference. They finished 18-5, winning their first game in the state playoffs before the CIAC canceled the remainder of the season due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Save for twins Jordyn Davis and Justyn Davis, almost all of the key contributors from a deep and talented senior class have moved on. The Mustangs will open the season on Feb. 9 with a lineup unfamiliar to many outside the town. That does not mean the expectations have been lowered.
“We’ve kind of built a program where sophomores and juniors, you play your JV time, you earn your time and as a senior you show what you’ve got,” Warde coach Ryan Swaller said. “We’ve had a very successful JV program the last few years and that’s translated to the varsity program. They can show what they can do.”
The Mustangs have been one of the league’s most consistent programs the past five years, finishing with double-digit wins in league play.
Swaller will follow the same pattern this year, though the composition of the lineup will be different from the past.
“We have a strong senior group, but guard based,” Swaller said. “That will allow us to go up-tempo even more than we usually do. It’s fun basketball, it’s good basketball and gives us a chance to compete. I’m just happy for the players, especially the seniors. It’s their chance to show what they have.”
The opening day of practice on Tuesday was welcomed by Swaller and his players after a delay of over a month.
“It was amazing, such a great feeling being out there with all the guys,” said Evan Defonce, one of the seniors moving into an enhanced role. “It is great bonding together. We definitely have a lot of work to do but I’m confident in our ability and looking forward to the upcoming season.”
Defonce and his teammates spent the delay trying to maintain fitness while having the status of the season hanging over their heads.
“It’s been crazy,” Defonce said. “We were only allowed to work in groups of four all winter. We weren’t sure what was going to happen so it’s definitely a stranger feeling. “I’m just really grateful to have the opportunity to come out here, especially as a senior. I wasn’t sure if I would have an opportunity this year.”
Swaller, like all coaches, has been preparing for two months full of changes due to the pandemic, which he said go beyond wearing masks and might not be readily apparent to the casual fan.
“In 10 months the kids haven’t done much, so it’s an adjustment to five days a week, six days a week, Swaller said. “Adjusting to the new protocols, the new routine. We’re not using a locker room. We’re not going into a locker room and having that team camaraderie together. We have to build it in other ways. We’re not going to have our fan base, our Stable, which we are going to miss a lot this year. The noise was so important. We as a group have to be together. We are excited to have a chance at an FCIAC championship. We are looking forward to competing for that.”
One player that will help is guard Demian Vial, who moved to the country several years ago from Russia and this year to Fairfield. He should complement the Davis twins in terms of point production.
Defonce echoed his coach’s words in terms of team goals this winter. Jon Gladstone, Ethan Mangano and Austin Curran are other key players.
“We did lose a lot of seniors but I think we have a good shot to be good again this year,” Defonce said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys with the potential to be great and a lot of returning players. We might be one of the smaller teams out there so rebounding is definitely going to be a big focus for us. And defense. And just getting into good shape. It has been a while so we have to get conditioned and ready to run.”