No matter the sport, it’s a commonality all top high school programs share: The ability to remain a championship contender in spite of heavy personnel losses.
Last season’s Ridgefield High boys hockey team showed why it belongs in any conversation about the state’s elite. The Tigers graduated numerous players from the 2016-17 team that won both FCIAC and Division I state titles and were still able to defend their conference championship before falling to Fairfield Prep in the state semifinals.
“Considering who we lost, a lot of people thought we might take a step back last year,” said Ridgefield head coach Shaun Gallagher. “But we were able to compete at nearly the same level, winning FCIACs and reaching the state semifinals.”
Although dominating defenseman Liam Galloway (first team All-FCIAC and All-State) and several other contributors have gone, Ridgefield’s graduation exits are not nearly as significant as they were a year ago. With that in mind, it’s no wonder many coaches regard the Tigers as the state’s best team entering the season.
“We do return a lot of good players,” said Gallagher, whose team opens the season Wednesday night against reigning state champ Fairfield Prep. “But we still need to continue to try and get better. We can’t take anything for granted.”
One thing is all but certain: Ridgefield’s top line will score goals. Seniors Will Forrest (center), Nick Cullinan and Matt Walker combined for 136 points last winter and should continue their reign of terror against opposing goalies this season.
“The way they play together is definitely a strong look for our team,” said Gallagher. “Whenever they are on the ice they are going to be a threat to score.”
The same could be said about Ridgefield’s second line of senior center Henry Garlick and junior wingers Kees van Wees and Owen Luft. “They have a lot of great chemistry,” said Gallagher. “And they are all big, strong players who can skate well.”
More production is likely from the Tigers’ third line of junior center Luke Welsh, senior winger Jack Pereira and sophomore winger Will Stewart, who played Bantam hockey last winter. “They have looked good during the preseason,” said Gallagher. “Not many teams are going to have a third line like that.”
Two other forwards, seniors Tyler Gordon and Christoph Schneider, might also contribute. “They are right there with the other guys,” said Gallagher.
To help compensate for Galloway’s departure, Gallagher has moved senior Brady McSpedon from forward to defense. “Brady is so physical and reads the game well,” said Gallagher. “He should give us some of the physicality that we lost with Liam (Galloway) leaving.”
Joining McSpedon on the blueline are seniors Simon van Wees and Daniel Parson and junior Kevin McNicholas. All three were regulars last season and supply a variety of skills. “Simon is big, smooth skater; Daniel is physical and patient; and Kevin is an excellent skater who makes a great first pass,” said Gallagher.
Add senior Logan Chang and junior Patrick Rigby and Gallagher has the luxury of playing six defensemen in most games.
Then there is senior Sean Gordon, who gives Ridgefield one of the state’s premier goalies. “He’s calm and he’s always in the right place,” said Gallagher about Gordon. “He has also put in a ton of work during the off-season to get ready for this year.”
One concern for the Tigers could be the lack of an established backup goalie. Last season’s understudy, Jack Rahlfs, moved to Texas, leaving Ridgefield with a question mark behind Gordon. “We have a few younger goalies who show promise but don’t have varsity experience,” said Gallagher.
It’s a minor worry, though. With all the returning talent on hand, the Tigers are primed to compete for a third straight conference title and a second state championship in three years.
Notes: Cullinan made the Division I All-State first team and the All-FCIAC second team last season. Forrest was named to the All-FCIAC second team.