Football preview: Ridgefield needs new starters to be quick learners

Junior quarterback Owen Matthews runs with the ball during a scrimmage in Newtown last week. — Andy Hutchison photo
Junior quarterback Owen Matthews runs with the ball during a scrimmage in Newtown last week. — Andy Hutchison photo

If the Ridgefield High football team is going to once again contend for a playoff berth, younger and less-experienced players will need to perform like veterans.

The Tigers — who open the season tonight (7 p.m.) on the road against three-time reigning Class LL state champion Darien — lost most of their starters on both sides of the ball and return only a handful of players with varsity experience.

“We’re very young right now,” said Ridgefield head coach Kevin Callahan, whose team went 7-3 in 2017 and just missed qualifying for the Class LL state playoffs. “Extremely, extremely inexperienced.

“Each week will be a growing process,” added Callahan. “Our success is not necessarily going to be on the scoreboard.”

Despite the widespread departures, the Tigers aren’t entering the season with diminished expectations.

“Subliminally, they all know that they are rebuilding but they’re all understanding there is a standard we hold ourselves to,” said Callahan. “They know they want to be successful.”

Callahan is impressed with his team’s approach.

“The kids are enthusiastic,” he said. “We love going out there and coaching them every day because they’re so anxious to learn.”

Callahan is hoping that his team’s athleticism will work well in spread-offensive formations as the Tigers try to challenge opposing defenses.

“I think we’re, overall, a very athletic team,” said Callahan. “If we can get our athletes to space I think we can be very effective.”

The most imposing of those athletes is Jackson Mitchell, a 6’2”, 215-pound receiver/defensive end who earned All-FCIAC and All-State honors as a junior. Mitchell, who has verbally committed to play at the University of Connecticut, caught 80 passes for 1,124 yards and 13 touchdowns last fall. On defense, he had 38 tackles (19 solo), three interceptions, two fumble recoveries, and two sacks.

“We will try to get Jackson as involved as we can,” said Callahan. “He can impact a game on offense and defense.”

Junior Owen Matthews and sophomore Declan McNamara have been vying to take over at quarterback, and Matthews will get the start in Friday night’s season opener at Darien.

“They have both played well during the preseason,” said Callahan. “Owen has a strong arm and is more of a pocket passer, while Declan is very athletic and can get out of the pocket and run.”

Senior Ben Seward, a starter last year, returns at running back, with Jack Englert and Dan Moroney also capable of contributing.

Mitchell and fellow senior Evan Wein lead the receiving corps, which also features Gigi Ghoram, Brian Showstead and Max Bornstein.

The offensive line has gotten a remake and remains an unfinished product. Senior Sam Klotz (center), Reid Englert (guard) and Jack Dowd (tackle) move into starting roles, with several other players vying for regular playing time. Among those in contention are juniors Henry Myler and Grant Jones.

Joining Mitchell on the defensive line are senior nose tackle Peter Behnke and senior defensive end Nick Hall.

Linebackers include seniors Dylan Bean, Connor Riebling, Kurt Monahan and Seward, with junior Alex Hanna and seniors Luke Faillaci, James Isaacson, and Wein leading the defensive backs. Owen Gaydos and Jack Englert might also contribute to the defense as strong safeties/linebackers in Ridgefield’s 3-5 set.

Monahan handles the punting duties, and senior newcomer Sebastian Gasparo is the new placekicker.

With the same schedule as last season, the Tigers will look to avenge losses to Darien, Greenwich and St. Joseph and return to the state playoffs. Ridgefield had two touchdowns called back during its 26-21 loss to Greenwich and blew a big lead while falling to St. Joseph, 38-35.

“Either of those games go the other way, we’re playing in states,” said Callahan.

Notes: Ridgefield has no captains this year.

Seniors Chris Hagele and Ryan Canavan are working their way back from injuries and could be part of Ridgefield’s offensive line.