Danny Melzer asks all of his seniors aspiring to be captains to fill out a questionnaire. One of the questions is to name three goals for the season.
Two years ago, before the New Canaan boys basketball team won its first state title since 1962, Melzer, the Rams’ coach, remembers how modest the responses were.
Finish .500. Qualify for both the state and FCIAC tournaments. Win more games at home.
The answers from this year’s seniors, a group probably mostly unknown outside of their town but with unlimited potential — they went 17-1 as freshmen —were quite different, Melzer said.
Go undefeated. Capture state and FCIAC championships. Win every game by double figures.
“I’m proud of that,” Melzer said yesterday, as he continued to wait, along with winter sport coaches and athletes throughout the state, and see whether the start of practices will begin in 12 days, as currently scheduled. “When I got here kids didn’t believe that New Canaan could be good at basketball, that teams could fear or have to prepare heavily for, take seriously. Now the kids in the program think we should win every game we play and that’s a major shift and an important shift.”
It wasn’t that long ago that basketball was considered a rest-stop sport in New Canaan, a break between the football and lacrosse seasons. Those wanting to see the school have success in the winter headed to the rink to watch the hockey team, not the gymnasium.
Though he will deflect the credit, the Rams’ fortunes changed with the arrival four years ago of Melzer, a popular coach at Stamford, where he once played and starred. After winning a combined eight games in his first two seasons, the team’s fortunes changed the following year, when New Canaan finished 20-5 and won the Division IV championship in the first year of a new state tournament format.
Once empty stands were now filled for Friday night home games by the same students who filled the bleachers at Dunning Field. A miraculous game-winning half-court shot at the buzzer by Ryan McAleer even brought the program a taste of national recognition when the video went viral.
“It’s certainly changed from when we first got here to now,” Melzer said. “There’s a lot of factors that go into that. I came in at a time when we had some really talented classes coming up. I get a lot of the credit but I don’t really deserve as much credit as I’m getting. There’s a ton of factors. New Canaan is such a supportive place and has so many resources. I’ve had so much help along the way getting this off the ground.”
Melzer credited the school’s athletic director, Jay Egan, the town’s youth basketball program, his assistant coaches and the people in New Canaan.
Despite heavy personnel losses, the Rams have a team that could realistically chase the success of their predecessors two years ago, led by captains Leo Magnus and Christian Sweeney, returning starters , and Will Bozzella, a talented point guard who suffered a season-ending injury after the second practice last year. All three played in the state title win.
A number of other seniors missed parts or all of last year, which ended with a 14-9 record before the season was ended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The plan right now is for a 12-game regular season. The status of any postseason play is uncertain. The CIAC Board of Control will meet a week from today to decide the status of the season, and whether winter sport practices will start on Jan. 19.
“It has been really tough not being able to see the guys and be in the gym together,” Magnus said. “Our chemistry is great. Hopefully we get to showcase it this year.”
For the seniors, especially those that don’t play a spring sport, there is a driving desire to display their talent.
Magnus has played with all the other seniors since moving to New Canaan in 4th grade. He has enjoyed having a role in the program’s resurgence.
“It’s been absolutely fantastic to see and be a part of it,” Magnus said. “All throughout middle school me and my teammates would hear you might be good now but your high school team isn’t good so it doesn’t matter. It’s really great just to see it is happening. It’s just a product of all the hard work and time we’ve put in.”
Melzer has replayed the possibilities for this season in his mind like an endless reel.
“This is going to be an extremely physical team, an extremely capable team,” Melzer said. “Not the most experienced but a ton of depth. We’ve got a great mix of senior leadership and some younger guys who are going to learn from them and help us out too.”
Magnus, more succinctly, agreed.
“I believe wholeheartedly we would be on a par with where we were two years ago,” he said.