Boys hockey preview: Ridgefield has titles to defend

In its fifth decade as a varsity program, the Ridgefield High boys hockey team had its best single season last winter.

The Tigers won their sixth conference title and then added a long elusive, first-ever Division I state championship, finishing the season with a 24-2 record.

But for Ridgefield to scale similar heights in 2017-18, many of its players will need to transition from supporting spots into leading roles. That’s because graduation was harsh on the Tigers.

Gone are 10 of Ridgefield’s top-16 players from last season, including All-State selections Matteo van Wees (forward), Harrison Chuma (defense) and Sean Keegans (goalie). Van Wees was named the Connecticut High School Coaches Association Player of the Year, and Keegans was arguably the state’s top netminder.

“We lost some very, very good players; some of the best we’ve ever had here,” said head coach Shaun Gallagher. “But we have some real good players returning, and we also have younger kids who can play. The learning curve just has to be fast.”

Two proven commodities are junior wingers Nick Cullinan and Will Forrest. Playing together on the second line, Cullinan (18 goals, 17 assists) and Forrest (12 goals, 13 assists) finished first and third, respectively, in points for Ridgefield.

“They have great chemistry,” said Gallagher about Cullinan and Forrest. “And they are really good at both scoring goals and setting them up.”

Joining Cullinan and Forrest on the first line is senior center Delmont Irving, who played on the fourth line last season. “He has improved quite a bit and gotten stronger” said Gallagher about Irving. “He’s stepping into a different role this year, but I think he’s ready for it.”

Senior Kieran McGowan and juniors Matt Walker and Braeden McSpedon should also be scoring threats, with juniors Christoph Schneider, Jack Pereira, Henry Garlick and Tyler Gordon and sophomores Kees van Wees, Owen Luft and Luke Welsh looking to contribute.

Ridgefield’s defense includes seniors Liam Galloway and Ty Fujitani, who were among the top-six blueliners last season. “Liam Galloway is going to be fun to watch; he’s big and strong and loves to compete,” said Gallagher. “And Ty Fujitani is a great skater who can join the rush on offense.”

Senior Tom Lombardozzi (the team’s seventh defenseman a year ago), juniors Simon van Wees, Logan Chang and Dan Parson, and sophomore Kevin McNicholas round out the defense. McNicholas, who played Bantam hockey last winter, might be Ridgefield’s best overall skater.

In goal, junior Sean Gordon replaces Keegans as the Tigers’ starting netminder. “Sean worked really hard in the off-season,” said Gallagher. “He looks ready to rip.”

Ahead of Saturday’s non-conference season opener against Fairfield Prep (7 p.m. at the Winter Garden), Gallagher is a mix of realism and optimism.

“We’re definitely rebuilding but we’re also hoping to reload,” he said. “I’m not overly concerned about the start of the season. My goal is for us to be playing our best hockey by time the post-season rolls around.”

Notes: Ridgefield will celebrate last season’s Division I state championship with a banner-raising ceremony prior to a game against Xavier next Friday (Dec. 22) at the Winter Garden. The festivities begin with refreshments at 2 p.m., followed by the opening faceoff at 4.

The Tigers’ only two losses in 2016-17 were to Xavier (3-2 in overtime) and Fairfield Prep (4-1). Ridgefield’s 4-3 comeback win over Prep in the Division I quarterfinals marked the first time the Tigers defeated the Jesuits in the state tournament.