Boys hoop preview: Ridgefield has FCIAC title to defend

In what might have been the best all-around school year for Ridgefield High teams, the most exciting victory came early last March.

Playing at a sold-out Alumni Hall on the campus of Fairfield University, the RHS boys basketball team defeated arch-rival Wilton in double overtime to win the program’s first-ever Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference championship.

“It was a night that the players now have with them for the rest of their lives,” said Ridgefield head coach Andrew McClellan. “The energy and atmosphere inside that gym were just incredible. Some people have told me it was the best sporting event they ever attended.”

The emotional, history-making triumph was memorable enough to make the Tigers’ next game — a season-ending, two-point upset loss to Shelton in the opening round of the Class LL state tournament — much easier to take.

“I think everyone was emotionally drained after winning FCIACs,” said McClellan, whose team finished the season with a 17-7 record. “And in the back of our minds, we knew that even if we had beat Shelton we would have played at Hillhouse (the eventual Class LL champion) the next day.”

While the celebration afterglow hampered the Tigers at the end of last season, it has already provided a boost this winter.

“We had 72 kids try out (for the varsity, junior varsity and freshman teams),” said McClellan. “That is a huge number which shows the level of excitement for the sport in Ridgefield right now.”

“The younger players coming into the program have seen that Ridgefield can win the FCIAC title, and that is good for us to have that confidence going forward,” continued McClellan. “Some of the good teams we’ve had in the past were still looking over their shoulder, almost expecting someone to beat them. But last year showed that we can be the team left standing at the end of the FCIAC playoffs.”

Despite its status as reigning champion, Ridgefield won’t be the conference favorite going into the 2017-18 season. The Tigers graduated four starters — center Nick Laudati, small forward Chris Longo, shooting guard Joe Newborn, and point guard Zach Esemplare — who were instrumental in the team’s run to the FCIAC title.

“Those four starters offered a ton of leadership and continuity,” said McClellan, whose team opens the season on Monday night (Dec. 18) at Byram Hills, N.Y. “That’s hard to replace.”

Fortunately, Ridgefield’s lone returning starter was the team’s best overall player. As a junior last season, Brenden McNamara led the team in scoring (16.1 points per game) and also averaged eight rebounds and two assists per contest.

“His best attribute is his basketball versatility; the inside/outside skill he has,” said McClellan about the 6’6” McNamara, who will play NCAA Division III basketball at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. “He’s a reliable scorer, and we can count on him to get a certain number of points and rebounds every game. Brenden plays the sport 12 months a year, so we expect him to have even more of an impact this season.”

Ridgefield’s two other seniors, 5”11 Ryan Malley and 6’1 Alex Price, will rotate at small forward. “Ryan is a defensive stopper; that’s his first role for us,” said McClellan. “Alex is a consistent outside shooter, and we’re looking to expand his role this year.”

James St. Pierre, a 5’10 junior, replaces Newborn at the two-guard spot for the Tigers. “James is a great shooter with combo-guard skills,” said McClellan. “He is a good dribbler and he has facilitating skills.”

Sophomore Luke McGarrity, a key contributor as a freshman reserve in 2016-17, moves into the starting lineup at point guard. “He’s capable of filling up the stat sheet,” said McClellan. “Luke has a big-time basketball IQ and he’s much improved as a scorer.”

Rounding out the starting five is 6’3 junior center Jackson Mitchell, who missed last season with an injury. “He’s a tough, physical, no-nonsense player who brings confidence and an inside presence,” said McClellan about Mitchell, who set program records as a receiver on this fall’s RHS football team. “With Jackson back, that frees up Brenden [McNamara] to play outside as well as inside.”

Off the bench, the Tigers will turn to four juniors — 6’1 small forward Weston Carpenter, 6’0 guard Cameron Andry, 6’3 forward/center Ryan Garson, 6’2 power forward Nick Hall, and 5’11 point guard Matt Misurelli — and sophomore Christopher Knachel, a 6’1 swingman.

Two more sophomores, 5’11 guard Johnny Briody and 6’3 center Matthew DeLuca, will be double-rostered and play on the JV and varsity teams.

“We have some nice depth,” said McClellan. “Some of those guys are stepping into bigger roles, so they will need to adjust to the pace of varsity games.”

With four new starters and a relatively untested bench, Ridgefield will need to trust its coaches’ annual mantra more this season.

“We are always preaching process over outcome,” said McClellan. “We just want to view every game as an opportunity to get better. If we do that, I think we’ll be ready to compete with the best teams, especially in the playoffs.”