Murph's Turf: Football rivalry resumes Saturday

When the Ridgefield High football team returned to practice Monday afternoon — two days removed from one of the most unimaginable and upsetting losses in program history — head coach Kevin Callahan didn’t need to break out any psychological recovery exercises.

That’s because two motivational factors were already in place, each with a polar magnetism attached.

“To have a shot at making the state playoffs, our players know we can’t afford any more losses going forward,” said Callahan, whose team squandered a 25-point, fourth-quarter lead in Saturday’s 38-35 road defeat to St. Joseph. “In addition to that, this next game is against Wilton, and it’s on homecoming.”

About the first point. Now with a 3-2 record, Ridgefield must win its final five regular-season games to have a shot at qualifying for the eight-team Class LL playoffs. Even if the Tigers do run the table, they still might not have a postseason: The loss to St. Joseph dropped Ridgefield to 14th in the Class LL point rankings, ensuring that the Tigers must not only win their remaining games but also hope that several teams ranked above them lose a few of theirs.

Then there is Callahan’s second point. The next opponent is indeed Wilton (this Saturday at Tiger Hollow, 1:30) and the game (streamed live on the HAN Network) is part of Ridgefield’s homecoming weekend. Wilton, of course, is the Tigers’ biggest rival, no matter the sport. That said, the schools’ football rivalry comes with its own special storyline.

1993. That was the last time Wilton won a football game against Ridgefield. Since then, the two have played 19 times and the Tigers have triumphed 18 of them. The other contest, in 1999 — Callahan’s first season as Ridgefield’s head coach — ended in a 7-7 tie.

Due to scheduling quirks, the teams have had a pair of two-season breaks from one another, with no meetings in 1994 and 1995 and then again the past two years. Take away those four seasons and Ridgefield and Wilton have played every year since 1959, when they were both members of the Southwestern Connecticut Conference.

When Ridgefield and Wilton last played, in 2014, the Tigers registered a 23-15 victory. It was a lonely win that season for Ridgefield, which finished with a 2-9 record. Nevertheless, the seniors on that team had a source of pride: They had still beaten Wilton.

This year’s senior class will look to do likewise in a rare Saturday afternoon contest. Ridgefield usually plays on Friday nights at Tiger Hollow, and coaches, players, and students were disappointed with the scheduling change for the Wilton game. Their complaints are valid — Friday night games attract big, boisterous crowds; Saturday afternoon games draw fans fewer in number and softer in voice.

The correlation isn’t lost on school administrators, who are also well aware of the potential for nastiness at Ridgefield-Wilton events and thus wanted game played on Saturday as a hedge against hijinks. Fresh in their minds was a confrontation last September, when Ridgefield students went to Wilton High and proceeded to urinate on the football field — one of the requirements for completing Ridgefield’s scavenger hunt. Having received a social media heads-up, some Wilton students were there to meet the urinators and a fight ensued, with one Ridgefielder going to to the hospital and a Wiltonian later arrested.

A few months later, the student bodies demonstrated a saner approach to the rivalry at the FCIAC boys basketball championship game. Both sides were loud and passionate and directed (mostly) clean yet pointed chants at one another both before and during the game, which Ridgefield won in double overtime.

One of those chants referenced the football rivalry, as Ridgefield students yelled “20 years” toward the Wilton stands. Although their math was off — the Tigers have gone unbeaten in the last 19 football meetings — the point was delivered. And if Ridgefield does win Saturday’s showdown, those chanters can say they were merely being proactive.