The head coach does not believe in contact at practice, yelling at players and takes injuries as a personal hurt.
Mitch Ross goes against every stereotype there is about the sideline leaders in high school football.
Except when it comes to winning games.
With Friday night’s 28-27 overtime decision over Brien McMahon, Fairfield Ludlowe improved to 3-1, needing just a month to equal their win total of the previous three years combined.
“We’re delighted,” said Ross, now in his second season after serving as Darien’s offensive coordinator. “My coaching staff has worked hard, the players have worked hard. We’re making a lot of progress and it’s great not just for the team but for the school. You’re seeing a lot of school spirit and in the town there’s quite a bit of buzz about the football team, and we’re now getting big crowds, which is nice.”
Where others saw Ludlowe as a dead end, Ross saw prime real estate to develop, one reason he left his position with what was then a two-time defending state champion. Ross also wanted to run his own program and practice his beliefs, as counterintuitive as they appear.
Practices at Ludlowe differ more than probably any other school in the state.
“We revamped everything,” Ross said about building on the foundation set a year ago. “We put new offensive and defensive systems in. We’ve changed practice so there’s no hitting in practice whatsoever. All we work on is execution and technique and one-on-one drills. Everything’s very controlled contact. So far no concussions. No injuries in practice and some injuries in games. That part we can control. That gets the parents on board. They’re no longer worried about playing football and head injuries and the like, or at least not overly concerned about it and that helps get a lot of new players.”
The Falcons have a number of them. Several, like two-way lineman Oliver Lay, have earned starting jobs despite never playing the sport before. Football is hip again at Ludlowe, and a deeper roster obviously opens up the possibilities.
That has made a difference in a number of areas. One would think, since there is no hitting, an important skill would suffer.
“It also helps that as you get better athletes, kids tackle better,” Ross said. “Tackling is a lot about speed and getting into position, and if you have speed and you’re in position you can make a tackle. We’ve been extremely happy with the tackling, where last year it was a weak point. We’re glad to see that we’ve improved. I’ve always felt this idea of toughening these kids with contact in practice was all bunk. We’ve avoided it and it has really helped a lot.”
If a Ludlowe player runs a wrong route in practice, the reaction from Ross and his assistants is probably surprising.
“There’s no yelling,” Ross said. “The fact that nobody’s yelling, kids stay positive, nobody gets discouraged, nobody gets afraid of making a mistake. If they make a mistake we explain what they should be doing and they get it. If someone came into your office and yelled at you, what would you think? Nobody has a positive response to getting yelled at.”
Ross said another improvement is his staff. He was able to attract Bob Maffei, who resigned as Trumbull’s coach at the end of last season, and four of his former assistants.
Most important are the players on the field. Not only are there more of them but they are also better skilled.
Colin Wilson has played well at quarterback, and he has some strong weapons like Brian Howell, equally effective out of the backfield or on the outside, and receiver Aidan Wykoff. The Falcons have scored 100 points in their wins.
Skeptics will point to two victories over winless teams and two by just one point, but you have to jog before sprinting, and these close games are the ones that consistently used to end in agonizing defeats.
“Frankly we’re not up with New Canaan or Greenwich or even close to that at this point,” Ross said. “The coaches understand that. The kids understand that. We have a long, long way to go. We’re not a playoff caliber team yet. We can’t take any opponent lightly. Every game we have to bring our best and obviously the last couple have come down to the wire. Every game is a tough game for us.”
If the Falcons defeat winless Trinity Catholic on Friday night, talk of a .500 season, which would have sounded nonsensical weeks ago, will be legitimate.
One thing is for certain: the bleachers will be packed.
“About a year and a half ago there was basically nobody in the stands after the first game,” Ross said. “In previous years attendance was low, school spirit was low and people weren’t playing football. This year alone we have 30 kids, 35 kids who never played football before who are playing football now. That’s one of the reasons why the the team has come such a long way.”
1. Greenwich (3-0). No rust from a bye week or sluggishness from looking ahead for the Cardinals on Friday night. The Marinelli Bowl is on the clock.
2. Darien (4-0). Darien hosts undefeated Staples this weekend in a game that normally would be the highlight of the weekend. No doubt coach Rob Trifone, for long term benefits, welcomes the test.
3. St. Joseph (3-1). The Cadets bounced back from the Darien loss by decimating undermanned Wilton. It is hard to see where they will have to fight back from a punch between now and the playoffs. Staples?
4. New Canaan (3-1). The Rams get the chance to make a statement after their season-opening defeat in Saturday night’s showdown with Greenwich. A loss really erases state-playoff margin of error.
5. Staples (4-0). Are the Wreckers legitimate postseason contenders or at the top of the second tier of teams in the FCIAC? We will know the answer late Saturday afternoon.