Football preview: Ridgefield looks to remain among state's best

Longtime Ridgefield High football head coach Kevin Callahan characterizes this year’s team with one word: potential.

Coming off one of the best seasons in program history — the Tigers went 10-3 and reached the Class LL state finals before losing to unbeaten Darien — Ridgefield has to replace many standouts, especially from its high-scoring offense.

With the graduations of quarterback Drew Fowler, running back Shane Palmer, and receivers Chris Longo and Collin Lowe, Ridgefield lost arguably the top set of skill players in the FCIAC last year. Palmer, Longo, and Lowe accounted for 3,386 yards of total offense, while Fowler threw for 1,738 yards and 22 touchdowns.

The scope of those departures could send some teams into rebuilding mode on offense. But this year’s Ridgefield team might have enough emerging talent to avoid that fate.

Senior quarterback Greg Gatto leads the reloaded offense after starting four games last season when Fowler was out with an injury. The 6’3, 200-pound Gatto has the size and skill to establish himself as one of the conference’s top quarterbacks this fall.

“Greg can make every throw,” said Callahan. “We can open up the offense more; we can be a little bit more diverse, a little more scary.”

“It was definitely good to get experience last year and it allowed me to take a bigger role in the offense this year and make more changes at the line and really step up my game,” said Gatto, who threw for more than 1,000 yards in 2016.

Another key player on offense is 6’2, 215-pound slot receiver Jackson Mitchell. The junior, who will also start on defense, is already drawing interest from Division I colleges. Callahan is particularly impressed by Mitchell’s work ethic. “His motor is phenomenal,” said Callahan, “it never stops.”

Seniors Luke Gaydos, Matt Lombardo and Jimmy Kulik and juniors Evan Wein and Aidan Schwartz (the JV quarterback last year) are among the top options at the other receiving spots for Ridgefield. Gaydos, who also excels as a shutdown cornerback, has been limited by a nagging back injury during the preseason and may not be able to play in the opening game Friday night at home against Darien.

At running back, junior Ben Seward and sophomore Max Bornstein are the frontrunners to replace Palmer, who ran for 973 yards (7.7 yards per carry) and caught 49 passes for 800 yards.

The offensive line is anchored by 6’3, 245-pound senior left tackle Michael Turner, who follows in the footsteps of his two older brothers as a captain this year. “It’s an honor and it shows the trust these guys have in me, so I take this honor to the fullest,” said Turner.

Joining Turner up front are senior left guard Rob Scialo, senior center Chris D’Entrone, junior right guard Peter Behnke (6’1, 265) and senior right tackle Brian Williams (6’4, 235). The consistency of the offensive line will be crucial to Ridgefield’s success this year.

While the offense must replace proven playmakers, the Ridgefield defense looks set to be among the FCIAC’s best units this season

“Last year people didn’t talk much about our defense, but this year I think it’s going to be the strength of the team,” said Callahan. “Last year we outscored people, this year we can stop people.”

Operating out of its trademark 3-3 box formation, Ridgefield expects to up the pressure on opposing quarterbacks this year. At the heart of this aggressive attack is senior linebacker Noah Isaacson, who led the Tigers in tackles (85) and sacks (six) last season.

“I think our defense is looking to be really aggressive this year,” said Isaacson. “Whether we are blitzing or not, we're always looking to be fast and physical.”

Joining Isaacson in the linebacking corps are seniors Alex Cali and Connor Goff. Cali was tied for second on the team in tackles last year with 81, while Goff has made tremendous strides and reads the game well from his middle-linebacker position.

Led by captains Gaydos (three interceptions in 2016) and Lombardo, the secondary is perhaps the most athletic unit for the Tigers this year. When healthy, Gaydos will team with Wein at cornerback, with Lombardo playing as strong safety/outside linebacker along with Mitchell, who should terrorize quarterbacks as an edge rusher. Senior Thomas Formus, a regular last fall, will be the starter at free safety.

Imposing senior John Schneider (6’2, 315) leads a defensive line that also features classmates Ian Porter and Jason Donovan and junior Ryan McCann. “The defensive line has gone from being a concern last year to a strength this season,” said Callahan.

By playing two-time reigning Class L champion Darien in the state opener Friday night, Ridgefield will get a quick read on where it stands this season.

“They’ve been what we’ve had our eyes set on all offseason,” said Gatto about the Blue Wave. “Every time we’ve been putting in work we’ve definitely had their team in mind.”

While observers might expect the Tigers to take a step back this year, the Ridgefield players are motivated to remain a postseason contender. A few days ahead of the regular season, Gatto summed up his teammates’ attitude. “It’s showtime baby,” he said.