When the high school football schedule was released, the members of the Ridgefield football team immediately looked at last Friday’s game against New Canaan.
The teams have met infrequently over the past decade, and the Tigers’ last win was 13 years ago. They were motivated not by any animus toward New Canaan, but rather respect. The Ridgefield players believed they had the talent to be state playoff contenders this season. And the Rams happened to be the first of three teams that qualified for the postseason last year on the schedule.
“This was our first opportunity to prove to everyone what we think we could be this year,” said middle linebacker Danny Moroney.
The Tigers had succeeded on that front before Adam Biernat lined up for a 37-yard field goal with two seconds left and the score tied at 14-14. When Biernat, a senior who joined the team this year after three seasons playing for the school’s soccer team, converted, the Tigers had more than validation. They had a critical 17-14 win.
“It was amazing. I’m still grasping it,” Moroney said. “This is something we’ve been preparing for ever since we found out they were on our schedule. Mentally and physically we were preparing for this for so long. We knew this was a game that was very important to us. And a winnable game.”
Ridgefield was held to five yards rushing, but quarterback Owen Matthews threw for 399 yards and two scores. After Chris Lang intercepted a pass to give the Tigers the ball on their own 12 with 1:33 left, Matthews completed a 53-yard pass to Kai Prohaszka to set up Biernat.
“Kids are kids and we all believe, but there’s always that piece of it that you’re coaching high school kids and sometimes the best way to convince them of something is to have them go out there and do it so they can believe in themselves,” Ridgefield coach Kevin Callahan said. “I think we got that done and it kind of takes us up a notch.”
The Tigers are 2-0 heading into Saturday night’s game against Staples. They are better positioned now to qualify for the Class LL playoffs for the first time since 2016, when they lost in the final to Darien.
As has been the case of late, the preseason talk centered around the same four teams that have recently dominated the conference: New Canaan, Darien, St. Joseph and Greenwich. With returning starters at almost every position, the Ridgefield players thought a fifth team was glaringly omitted.
That gave greater gravitas to Friday’s game.
“We felt a little bit disrespected in a way because it was like those four teams were put in a different class than everyone else and we felt we had the talent to be up there with those teams,” Moroney said. “This was our opportunity to prove it. We came out on fire.”
The Tigers held New Canaan scoreless during the first half, taking a 7-0 lead. After the Rams rallied in the third quarter to go ahead, 14-7, Ridgefield scored twice in the final 2:53 for its biggest win since the 2016 state semifinals.
“You look at our schedule and the league schedule is pretty hard,” Callahan said. “We knew that the games on the schedule that would be the make or break games so to speak, clearly this is the first one that comes up. So I thought the kids were hyperfocused for it and they reflected that in the way they practiced during the week.”
A veteran defense felt it was incumbent upon them to limit the Rams to give the offense a chance to win the game.
“It was a lot of preparation, lots of film,” said Moroney, who had two of the team’s three interceptions. “We had a very sharp week mentally in practice and we knew what was coming for us. Our defense we feel is a special unit this year. We knew they weren’t going to give up a lot of points to our offense so we had to hold them to a low number and that’s what we did.”
Perhaps the player who has made the greatest strides is Matthews, who like many of his teammates benefited from the experience gained last year during a 6-4 season.
“The biggest thing with Owen is the physical maturation is following course but his mental maturation has really stepped up,” Callahan said. “He has become quite the leader. I think he often may have questioned himself last year and he’s showing a lot more confidence.”
The Tigers also have a number of playmakers like Prohaszka, Gianni Gorham and Owen Gaydos, operating with an improved offensive line..
Ridgefield still has St. Joseph and Greenwich looming, but Friday’s win should provide an added confidence boost.
“We had a lot of young guys last year, a lot of returning guys this year,” Moroney said. “We weren’t happy with how things turned out last year over all and we’re just trying to build off of it. We feel we are kind of like the same team from last year, just continued. A few new guys coming in have stepped up and played really well. For the most part we are more experienced than most teams in the league.”
1. St. Joseph (2-0). The Cadets have yet to be tested. Next up is Wilton.
2. Darien (2-0). Another impressive showing by the Blue Wave defense to take down Southington.
3. Greenwich (2-0). Thoughts of a tiny tumble this year by the Cardinals so far seem to have been greatly exaggerated.
4. Ridgefield (2-0). The Tigers have more playmakers on both sides of the ball than we realized. Their emergence will make the regular season more entertaining.
5. New Canaan (1-1). The Rams lost their season-opener the past two years so they are familiar with overcoming early-season defeats.