When the previews started appearing last month, Staples girls basketball coach Paco Fabian and his players were a little perplexed. The Wreckers earned the eighth and final seed in the FCIAC Tournament a year ago, an accomplishment that led Fabian to be voted Coach of the Year by his peers.
The Wreckers understandably expected to see themselves listed as contenders this year with so many players returning. Instead, they were nowhere to be found.
“We were actually really surprised at the preseason rankings,” Fabian said. “We used it as motivation. Our theme at the beginning of the season was sleeper. We actually used the word sleeper at one of our meetings and we started saying it in some of the huddles. When the year ended last year people came up to me and said you’re in the top four or five and then when the rankings came out we were lower than that in every ranking I saw.”
While it is premature to discuss playoff seeding, it doesn’t take long to find the Wreckers in the standings these days. At 6-0 they have the best record in the league, a half game ahead of Trumbull, the defending conference champion, the team they host tomorrow night in a game that has fans of the sport in Westport abuzz.
“I don’t think Staples has had a bigger game than what we have Friday night in probably 10 years,” Fabian said.
The significance was amped by the Wreckers’ 17-point win Tuesday at Wilton, a team that did receive early-December hype that then grew after a win over Stamford, the preseason favorite.
“Some nights you have off nights and Wilton didn’t have it last night,” Fabian said on Wednesday. “I don’t know what it was but they missed some shots that I saw them make in the Stamford game. We did our best job defensively and put the pressure on their best players, and we tried to take their best players out of the game. It was one of those nights when I thought Wilton was a little off their game and we took advantage of it.”
Fabian and many of his players watched the Warriors’ dominant performance against Stamford, but he had an added extra motivating factor at his disposal. Wilton was held in much higher regard by the media than the Wreckers despite finishing a game behind them last year in the standings.
“Wilton had the same exact girls who were on the floor that we beat last year and we have the same players,” Fabian said. “We only lost one or two players. We didn’t think that our girls were really respected the way some other teams were.”
That has quickly changed. The Wreckers have one of the best 1-2 scoring punches with Arianna Gerig, a sophomore, and Elle Fair, a junior, who are averaging 18 and 15 points, respectively. Senior Nicole Dienst is the fiery presence the Wreckers feed off of. Sophie Smith and Isabella Didio also provide veteran leadership. Fabian has used freshman Marly Lopez and senior Amanda Troelstra at center.
“Nicole Dienst is our vocal leader and does a little bit of everything,” Fabian said. “It’s hard to take her off the floor because of everything she does. She gets everyone going with her emotional effort out there. We’ve had younger girls step up. We are going 10 deep.”
The Wreckers’ depth has been one of their greatest weapons. They are 8-1 over all, but Tuesday’s game with Wilton was the first time this season they led at halftime.
“Everyone who comes to watch us says you are wearing teams down in the second half,” Fabian said. “Since I started coaching everyone knows I’m going to press 90 percent of the game. We’re going to try and wear you out. There’s no secret what we’re doing. We’re going to try and come at you and make you play 32 minutes of basketball up and down the floor and it has been working this year.”
Trumbull, which reached the Class LL final last March, presents another challenge for the Wreckers. The Eagles are the only remaining unbeaten team in the FCIAC.
“We’re going to have a tough time Friday night,” Fabian said. “What we talked about after the Wilton game, before the Wilton game, is if we won, we didn’t win anything. We didn’t win the championship. The only thing we’re fighting for is homecourt advantage. Our goal all year is to get homecourt.
Fabian was referring to the opening round of the FCIAC Tournament, doubleheaders hosted by the top two seeds.
It was a goal the press may have seen as a stretch weeks ago, but one the Wreckers have always felt would be within their reach.
Now even more so.
“They were a little giddy after the Wilton game,” Fabian said. “Hopefully the lights aren’t too big for us and we can give Trumbull a game Friday night.”