Murph's Turf: Bests of a special Ridgefield winter

Following are The Press’s Best-Of choices for perhaps the best winter sports season in Ridgefield High School history.

Play: Trailing Danbury, 48-45, with 3.6 seconds left in the fourth quarter of the conference semifinals, the Ridgefield boys basketball team inbounded the ball under its own basket. Joe Newborn passed to point guard Zach Esemplare, who dribbled around a pick from Brendan McNamara and zipped up court. With a defender on him, Esemplare managed to hit a three-point attempt from the left side that tied the game at the buzzer. Esemplare added a game-tying layup in the first overtime and sank five-of-six free throws in the second overtime as the Tigers emerged with a 67-63 victory.

Comeback: When longtime nemesis and perennial state kingpin Fairfield Prep scored the only two goals of the second period to take a 3-1 lead over Ridgefield in the quarterfinals of the Division 1 boys hockey tournament, it looked as though the Tigers’ season was coming to a frustrating end. Not so fast. Goals from Nick Cullinan and Matteo van Wees in less than 30 seconds tied the game early in the third period, and Cullinan added the game-winner early in overtime on a nice pass from Jonas Chang. The 4-3 triumph was Ridgefield’s first-ever state tourney win against Prep.

Quartet: Long known for its relay teams, the Ridgefield girls track program added more prestige this winter. Gabriella Viggiano, Tess Pisanelli, Anna Landler and Katie Jasminski began the post-season with a first-place finish in the 4x800-meter relay at the FCIAC championship, setting a new meet record and winning by more than 11 seconds. Following another victory at the State Open, the four Tigers finished second at the New England regionals, lowering the previous school record by slightly more than four seconds and posting the second fastest indoor time ever for a Connecticut team.

Newcomer: Ninth grade wrestlers usually don’t have success competing in the higher weight classes. Brian Showstead must not have gotten the memo. A freshman competing at 160 pounds, Showstead established himself as one of the FCIAC’s best young wrestlers, finishing fourth in the division at the conference championship. He then placed sixth at the Class LL state tournament, earning a spot in the State Open.

Female athlete: Somewhat under the radar, Caroline Curnal is evolving into one of the best all-around athletes in Ridgefield High. After earning All-FCIAC and All-State volleyball honors as an outside hitter last fall, Curnal received more acclaim on the basketball court this winter. The 5’10” junior power forward used her strength, tenacity and athleticism to average a double-double (13 points, 12 rebounds), leading the Tigers in both categories. Curnal, who also averaged four steals per game, was rewarded with a spot on the All-FCIAC first team. Now comes the spring: Curnal is a returning starter for the RHS girls lacrosse team, and lacrosse is arguably her best sport.

Male athlete: As a sophomore in 2015-16, Kieran Smith won five-of-six individual events in post-season meets for the Ridgefield High boys swim team, setting several school, meet and state records. He topped himself this winter. Smith triumphed in all six of his post-season individual races, rewriting records along the way. His best performance came at the State Open, where Smith won the 200-yard freestyle and the 500-yard freestyle in meet- and state-record times that also earned him Automatic All-American honors. For good measure, Smith anchored Ridgefield’s first-place 400 freestyle relay.

Team: How impressive was Ridgefield’s winter? After a 45-season wait, the boys basketball team won its first-ever conference championship. But the nod goes to the boys hockey team which also won an FCIAC title (the sixth in program history) and went on to add the first Division I state championship in program history with a 6-2 victory over Northwest Catholic in the finals. Ranked first in the state throughout the season, the Tigers finished with a 24-2-0 record.

Coach: Once in a while, ties are warranted. This is one of those times. RHS boys basketball coach Andrew McClellan used timely substitutions, designed plays and defensive switches to keep opponents second-guessing and help the Tigers win their history-making FCIAC title. Just as impressive was RHS boys hockey coach Shaun Gallagher. He deployed Ridgefield’s depth to full advantage, and the result was third-period domination (and two championships) for the state’s best team.