FAIRFIELD — Jess Camarda can remember the first day of practice three months ago, when the man with the bald head and earring who they were vaguely familiar with started talking about winning championships and the work rate that would be needed to fuel the goal.
And then the Ridgefield High School girls basketball season officially began.
“It was hard,” Camarda recalled as she glanced at her coach, Tom DiMarzo. “We would run all the time. We were exhausted after practice the first week. Now we are used to working hard.
Fast forward to Thursday night at Fairfield Ludlowe High School. The Tigers were locked in a struggle with third-seeded Greenwich in the FCIAC championship game, holding a slender 36-33 lead.
All the words and actions from that first week were recalled, summoned and executed. And the Tigers needed all of it to come away with a slender 48-47 win over Greenwich that was not decided until a game-winning attempt from halfcourt by Leigh Galletta hit off the front of the rim.
Ridgefield had its first title since 1996. DiMarzo, who looks — and even sounds — like he could be an extra in a Scorsese film, had a championship in his first year.
DiMarzo was an assistant to Ridgefield boys coach Carl Charles before taking the girls job last summer.
“We said at the end of August they believed in the coaching staff and the coaching staff believed in them,” DiMarzo said. “This was the product of hard work.”
That was evident in the final quarter. Two nights after seeing a 16-point lead whittled to two by top-seeded Wilton before maintaining their poise for the win, the Tigers traded punches and withstood an 11-4 Greenwich run that tied the game at 44-44 with, appropriately, 44 seconds left.
Then Camarda, in the play of the game, threw a pass past a maze in the middle right to Andrea Bedard, whose layup with 29 seconds left gave the fifth-seeded Tigers (20-3) a lead that would stand.
“They were focusing on the ball and Andrea was wide open,” said Camarda, making the play seem easier than it was. “You have to throw that pass because it’s a 2-point play. You have to make a play.”
Camarda added two free throws that were needed when Alexa Moses, she of the deciding late 3-point shot to down Warde in the semifinals, hit a trey from the corner with four seconds left for No. 3 Greenwich (19-4) to make it a one-point game.
The Tigers, a year after underachieving with a slow start and failing to even qualify for the tournament, had their rings.
“Last year we didn’t even make it. This is amazing,” said junior Rebecca Lawrence, the team’s one returning starter, who was named the most valuable player after scoring 8 of her team-high 15 points in the final quarter. “No one sees a five seed in a championship game. You have to give yourselves credit for that.”
Lawrence, an agile 6-2 center, for the second straight game had to bang with a 6-3 conventional post player. On Tuesday it was Wilton’s Erica Meyer. On Thursday it was the Cardinals’ Abbie Wolf, and the game within the game was fascinating as the two players got their points, their blocks, their stops and their rebounds.
Wolf finished with a game-high 20 points and did everything possible to lift her team to victory. She left the court defeated, not a loser.
Lawrence, who had been held scoreless since the final minute of the first quarter and with few touches after, decided she had to be more assertive in the final period of the FCIAC season.
Lawrence first hit a baseline jumper, then a 17-foot shot, followed by an inside basket and midrange shot, her versatility in full display.
“I just knew we had to win it,” Lawrence said. “We would get a lead and then we would lose it. I just had it in me. I got the outside shot. I did what I did. I didn’t think.”
The way Lawrence spoke, while other players had music coming through their headphones during the pregame shootaround, Lawrence sounded like she listened to Dr. Phil.
“I always overthink things,” she said. “I was frustrated and I let it get in my head. I got over the bump, cleared my head and started making shots. Maybe Abbie got in my head. She’s a great, great player. I have so much respect for her. I had to get going.”
DiMarzo had high praise for the anchor he built the team around.
“She’s unstoppable. She’s such a great player,” DiMarzo said of his center. “She could be a ballhog, go for 20 a night. She averages 14. She’s a humble kid.”
Camarda and Meaghan O’Hara each scored 12 points, and Ridgefield’s conference drought ended because of contributions from every member of a team put together by a new coach who said he treated his girls like males.
“I pushed them pretty hard,” DiMarzo said. “I think they accepted it.”
Judging by his players’ reaction at the end of the night, DiMarzo turned out to be their Goodfella.