Commentary: Ridgefield’s Secret Weapon Can Be Found On The Bench

Ridgefield coach Andrew McClellan reacts after Saturday's quarterfinal win over Brien McMahon. (Photo: Dave Ruden)
Ridgefield coach Andrew McClellan reacts after Saturday’s quarterfinal win over Brien McMahon. (Photo: Dave Ruden)

FAIRFIELD — Prior to the start of Saturday’s first FCIAC boys basketball tournament quarterfinal game, Ridgefield athletic director Carl Charles offered the opinion that Andrew McClellan is one of the conference’s best coaches.

At that moment, given McClellan’s body of work consisted of 20 games, it may have been a little premature to offer such a definitive assessment.

But 32 minutes later, after the Tigers’ 58-45 win over Brien McMahon, it was a reminder that McClellan has done an outstanding job in his first season since taking over for Charles.

The Coach of the Year discussion has been compelling because they are so many strong candidates. Greenwich’s Bill Brehm. Stamford’s Danny Melzer. Wilton’s Joel Geriak. Those three have received the most attention, and there are no counterarguments that can be made.

But McClellan has been mostly absent from the discussion, which has been in line with what has happened up in the land of the Tiger’s Lair all winter. The Tigers earned no preseason recognition after Charles stepped down and a good senior class led by Kurt Steidl graduated.

Yet the Tigers have flourished, and in the process may be the least-talked-about No. 3 seed in league history. They are unspectacular but remarkable consistent. They lost their top-scorer, Matt Brennan, to a season-ending knee injury eight games ago and have not missed a beat.

Greenwich is the only team that rivals the Tigers’ cohesion.

And the Ridgefield players are well at ease with their status. Consider these words from Patrick Racy after his 19-point performance against McMahon: “You definitely have to credit the success to Coach McClellan. We’re not the most talented team, and everyone knows that. We are so close to being 17-1 (in league play). Definitely a lot of credit goes to him.

The Tigers were 14-4 in conference play and three of the losses came in succession, to Bridgeport Central, Greenwich and Stamford, the Nos. 1, 2 and 5 seeds, respectively. They are now 17-4 overall.

How many players on good teams will admit that their skill levels are not the deciding factor? Ridgefield is prouder about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

“When you make a mistake he is very encouraging,” Racy said. “He tells you what you did wrong and then you move on.”

The fourth quarter of Saturday’s game was a microcosm of Ridgefield’s season. The Tigers opened with a 10-0 run. Three baskets came on layups in which Charlie Irwin found teammates alone on backdoor cuts.

The Tigers led, 44-28, and the Senators got no closer than 9 points the rest of the way.

“We just try to get easy layups,” Racy said. “It’s not just about taking 3s. We might not be the best offensive team, but we play like a team.”

Here’s the statistic that best summed up the Tigers’ win: They made 22 field goals. There were assists on 17, including 9 by Irwin. Four players scored in double figures, with Irwin adding 13, Zach Ward 11 and Thomas Haughney 10.

“On the offensive end we try to do simpler things,” McClellan said. “Wear people down with our poise and energy. We backcut and screen and do what we can to get good shots.”

Ridgefield has always been a zone team. This season it has gone man-to-man exclusively.

“Man-to-man is what I’m comfortable with,” McClellan said. “It’s what I’ve been brought up on.”

If the personnel was different, McClellan would probably throw in the occasional switch.

“Our motto is stop-score-stop,” McClellan said.”

This winter the result has mostly been win-win-win.

It has all started at the top, with an overlooked coach who likely will be shedding that anonymity very soon.

Greenwich 70, Wilton 62

Next up for the Tigers is No. 2 Greenwich, which came away with an impressive 70-62 win over Wilton in Saturday afternoon’s second game, one that was not as close as the final score would indicate.

CJ Byrd with 23 points. Expected. Alex Wolf with 16 points. Expected.

The turning point in the game came with just over three minutes left in the second quarter, when Byrd left the game with a badly cut lip and Wolf soon joined him on the bench with his second foul.

Trailing, 21-19, Thomas Povinelli hit a 3-point shot that started an 8-0 run. Povinelli would hit two more treys in the next 2 1/2 minutes and scored all 19 of his points in an eight-minute span.

“I was open,” Povinelli said matter-of-factly. “Coach told me to keep shooting and I did, and they kept going in.”

Equally important but less obvious was the job by Jonathan Palmer on the defensive end. After holding Eric Houska, the Warriors’ star shooter, to 7 points during the regular season, he limited him to just 9 on Saturday.

“I told Povinelli after the game thanks for being the way you were, and Palmer just did a great job again,” Greenwich coach Bill Brehm said. “It’s not just Byrd and Wolf.”

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