By Dave Ruden
STAMFORD — It was a move puzzling on the surface and questioned by opposing coaches, but one Danny Melzer felt was necessary for the growth of the Stamford High School boys basketball program.
So midway through last season, Melzer’s first as the Black Knights’ head coach, he had two of his starters, Kenny Wright and Ancel Nevers, move down and play with both the varsity and junior varsity teams.
It didn’t matter that both juniors started for the varsity the previous season.
“I wanted them to get playing time with the three sophomores,” Melzer explained Sunday night. “To Kenny and Ancel’s credit, they were open to it. It would have felt like it was a demotion, but it was not a demotion. I wanted to build chemistry and build for the future. I wanted to get them playing together, and it looks like it is paying off.”
The dividends, thus far, have been sizable. Coming off a week when they won at Bassick and St. Joseph, then Friday handed Ridgefield its first loss, the Black Knights are 5-2 over all and, at 4-1, tied for the third-best record in conference play.
“Did I think we’d be good this early? I wasn’t sure,” said Melzer, answering his own question. “I don’t know if we’re that good yet. I’m not trying to sound arrogant. They are working hard in practice. We are still capable of losing to any team on any given night. We have to work hard to improve.”
That last sentiment applies to just about any team not named Bridgeport Central.
It also is a big change for Melzer, who had a miserable first year as coach of a team he once played for and served as an assistant.
Melzer had eight seniors a year ago and was deferential to their status, though none had considerable playing time. But after a 1-9 start, Melzer realized changes needed to be made.
“It was rough because I couldn’t get the seniors to buy in,” Melzer said. “For me it was a rough season. I certainly had my share of mistakes.”
Melzer also had to step in for his mentor, veteran coach Jim Moriarty.
“Having to replace Mo was a challenge by itself,” Melzer said. “I played for Mo, I learned from Mo, I coached for Mo. There was a lot of pressure there. No one expected us to be good.”
Moriarty is now Melzer’s boss as Stamford’s athletic director, and he offered some advice before the start of this season.
“I’m taking a slightly different approach,” Melzer said. “Mo said I have to stop majoring in the minors. I was sweating all the little things.”
Stamford went 5-5 during the second half of last year, laying a foundation for the future.
While the Black Knights were considered a sleeper in early December, and Melzer’s poker-faced look seemed to hint that he was sitting on a surprise, few thought the future would be now.
The Black Knights have not only been winning, but they are toppling quality opponents. They sent an early warning shot on opening night, with an 11-point win over Norwalk.
“If we started with a loss, I don’t know how we would have responded,” Melzer said.
There is a blight on the schedule: a defeat to Weston right after Christmas that dropped Stamford’s record to 2-2.
“I brought the team together and asked them if they were happy to just be mediocre,” Melzer said. “Since then they’ve practiced 20 times better and since then we haven’t loss.”
Kenny Wright has emerged not just as a leader, but one of the FCIAC’s best players. He scored the final 5 points — finishing with 24 — to rally the Black Knights past Ridgefield in a game with playoff intensity.
Nevers has been a defensive stopper, and juniors Gianni Carwin, Kewshon Askew and James Gronberg are playing with the unity their coach hoped for. Melzer is also getting quality minutes from his bench.
Melzer said the big asterisk for the Black Knights over the last two-thirds of the season is the 6-6 Askew, who sustained a broken leg over the summer.
“The X-factor is Kwe,” Melzer said. “He’s capable of dominating a game.”
Melzer’s biggest challenge right now will be making sure the Black Knights continue playing with the same hunger and don’t get complacent or, worse, start suffering from inflated egos.
Thus far there are no signs that will happen, but these are players who, for the most part, are experiencing success for the first time.
“The coach inside me doesn’t want to get too happy,” Melzer said. “There’s still a long way to go. I’m happy for the kids because last year was a rough season. Now that we are getting recognition, we are going to get everybody’s A game. We want to be prepared for that.”