Ridgefield football aims for bounce-back season
For the eighth time in nine years, the Ridgefield High football team finished with a winning record last fall.
But unlike most of the previous seasons this decade, the Tigers didn’t seriously contend for a state tournament berth.
Losses in three of its first five games doomed Ridgefield, which ended the year with two victories to finish 6-4.
“It was a mediocre season by our standards,” said head coach Kevin Callahan, who has led Ridgefield to three state tournament appearances since 2011, including a spot in the Class LL finals three years ago. “We lacked consistency and struggled against the tougher teams.”
Although graduation didn’t floor the Tigers, it did separate them from some impact players. Most notable among that group was receiver/defensive end Jackson Mitchell, a two-time All-State selection now competing for playing time as a true freshman at UConn.
“A guy like Jackson is kind of irreplaceable,” Callahan said. “Those types of players don’t come around every year.”
On offense, Ridgefield’s returnees include senior quarterback Owen Matthews, who started last year and completed 164 of 267 passes for 2,005 yards and 17 touchdowns. “He has a strong arm,” Callahan said about Matthews. “He can make all the throws.”
The Tigers also have a good understudy in junior Declan McNamara, who played in two games last year. “Declan is very athletic and more of a threat when running with the ball,” Callahan said. “He’s also really improved his arm strength.”
With Ben Seward graduating and Jack Englert transferring to prep school, Ridgefield has lost its top-two running backs from last year. Senior Danny Moroney (170 yards) returns as a short-yardage type back, and junior Xander Scavone and sophomore Kai Prohaska have the speed and athleticism to get outside.
Senior Gianni Gorham gives the Tigers a potential game breaker at wide receiver after catching 34 passes for 536 yards and seven touchdowns last fall. “He’s 6’3” and he ran a 4.5 40 [yard dash] in camp,” Callahan said about Gorham. “He just needs to be more consistent. If he does that, teams will have to game plan for him.”
Fellow senior Max Bornstein and junior Owen Gaydos will also figure prominently as receivers, with senior Jackson Kuwata and juniors Nick Agliardo and Tyler Greene hoping to contribute. McNamara might also be used as a receiver to take advantage of his speed.
Perhaps the best news on offense for Callahan and Ridgefield is that the offensive line looks much improved. The Tigers struggled so mightily in pass protection last season that Matthews would have felt safer in witness protection. The nadir came in a loss to Greenwich, as Ridgefield allowed a state-record eight sacks to one player (Mozi Bici).
“We know Owen is durable because he spent a lot of time getting hit and sacked,” Callahan said. “But the offensive line shouldn’t be a weakness this year. We are rarely, if ever, big up front, but this year we are big.”
Reid Englert, a 6’3, 235-pound left guard who is drawing interest from Division I programs, is one of three returning starters. “Reid is big and extremely athletic,” Callahan said. “He has run a 4.8 in the 40-yard dash.”
Senior tackles Grant Jones (6’6, 265) and Jack Dowd (6’3, 220) are also returning starters, and classmate Henry Meyler (6’5, 235) and sophomore Cameron Smith (6’4, 280) take over at center and guard, respectively. Senior Will Everdell is among several players who should also have roles.
Englert and junior Jackson Trotter are the defensive ends, with seniors Daniel Furneri (a first-year player) and Evan Mazuera the front-runners at nose guard. Dowd will also see time on the defensive line, and senior Conor Lavelle and sophomore James Nightingale are other options.
Moroney (66 tackles) is back at inside linebacker, with Scavone, sophomore Nick Verbitsky, junior Alex Bornstein, and senior Will Carbonari competing for the two outside linebacker positions.
Senior Alex Hanna returns at cornerback and should be one of the FCIAC’s best. Hanna intercepted three passes and broke up many more a year ago.
“I can’t talk enough about Alex Hanna,” Callahan said. “He had interceptions against every D1 quarterback we played against last season. Personally, I think he may be the best cornerback in the league.”
Brett D’Alexander takes over as the other cornerback, and Gaydos, seniors Chris Macchia and Dean Habeeb, and junior Chris Lang are vying to start at the hybrid safety/linebacker spots. Gaydos had a team-best four interceptions last year.
The regular-season schedule includes four games — against New Canaan, Staples, St. Joseph, and Greenwich — that could determine whether Ridgefield makes a run at a state tournament berth. St. Joseph (Class M) and Greenwich (Class LL) are reigning state champions, and New Canaan lost (to Greenwich) in the state finals.
“How we do against those four teams will be a direct correlation to the success of our year,” Callahan said. “We’re anxious in setting a goal to be practicing after Thanksgiving, but clearly that’s a tall order considering our schedule. We’ll see what we can do.”
Notes: Ridgefield opens the season Friday, Sept. 13, against Fairfield Warde (7 p.m.) at Tiger Hollow.
The schedule includes an out-of-state game at Chatham, N.J., on Oct. 2.
Senior Adam Biernat, a former soccer player, has joined the team and will be the place kicker. McNamara and Prohaska are the leading candidates to take over as punter.