Think New Canaan sports and football immediately comes to mind. Likely followed by lacrosse.
Basketball would be low on the list, if mentioned at all. Play word association and the first connection might be Don Usher, and he has been retired for several decades.
The Rams’ best memory in the sport was a heralded FCIAC championship game against Trumbull at the Wilton Field House. That took place in 1983.
In his third season at the school, Danny Melzer has been trying to change the image of the sport. It is an ongoing process, but the Rams have had more early-season buzz than at any time in recent memory. It appears modest: many opposing coaches and media forecasts predicted the team would qualify for the FCIAC Tournament.
To appreciate the significance, consider the Rams last qualified for the state playoffs a decade ago with a 10-10 record.
So far, the team is off to a good start. It is 4-2 heading into tonight’s game against Bridgeport Central.
“The guys have really had basketball talked about in a positive way,” Melzer said. “The attention is good for them. They work hard. We are trying to get basketball to be a priority.”
So far the results have been mostly reassuring. In a carefully scrutinized league opener, the Rams lost at home by 18 points to Wilton. They were competitive Thursday in a 47-38 loss at Danbury.
On the flip side there is a 21-point win over Greenwich — ironically on a night when the team honored Usher before a large crowd — and a non-league victory over Shelton.
“I think we play so well together,” Melzer said, discussing the team’s strengths. “There is very unselfish play, making the extra pass. We are a good defensive team. And we have depth. We need to be a better rebounding team.”
Last year the Rams’ offense revolved around Alex Gibbens, who is back. Gibbens is getting help from Matt Brand, Ben Sarda and Jack Richardson. The four are all averaging between nine and 11 points a game.
“We’re more balanced,” Melzer said. We’re getting everyone involved.”
Melzer, one of a number of good young coaches that have changed the dynamic of the league, can teach his players about success. He was an outstanding player at Stamford, and was the winning pitcher in a state baseball championship win against Trumbull.
Melzer coached at Stamford before taking over at New Canaan. It has been a form of culture shock in the way the sport is viewed.
“Some things I expected and some I didn’t,” Melzer said. “I didn’t know how little basketball these guys played. Basketball wasn’t the most important thing. In Stamford everyone is always playing basketball. It’s the most important thing.”
Melzer is changing that. He said even the Rams’ multi-sport athletes are now playing the sport for more than just three months in the winter. It is becoming a greater priority.
“To be good at basketball you have to play basketball,” Melzer said.
Melzer said the Rams’ goals this season are to qualify for both the league and state tournaments. They are in Division IV of the state’s convoluted playoff format and could make a good run.
That is the long term. Right now New Canaan is in the middle of its most difficult stretch of the season, with six straight games against teams that qualified last year for the FCIAC Tournament. A couple of wins would further validate the early buzz and go a long way toward their postseason hopes.
“Because of it we knew getting off to a good start was important,” Melzer said. “One thing I didn’t realize until this year, when you’ve lost for so many years it’s a hard thing to turn around. One of the hard things is getting the kids to believe they are going to win, or can win. We’ve beaten some good teams. Winning these games is going to get us over the hump. Last year we didn’t get a big win to get us over the hump. We have to break the mindset.”
• Trumbull’s Timmond Williams reached 1,000 points in style. He hit the milestone by banking in a shot at the buzzer Thursday night for a 50-49 win over Ridgefield. If you missed it, here is the play below.
• In a game that is important for the top of the league, Danbury hosts Ridgefield tonight. The Hatters are looking for their first signature win. The Tigers have lost two in a row, but to top 10 teams.
• Because of the shortage of officials, the FCIAC and SWC agreed to play regular-season games on different nights. That is the reason the FCIAC is currently playing on Mondays and Thursdays. They will go back to the traditional Tuesday-Friday schedule at midseason. The coaches I have spoken to are having a tough time with the current format, in large part because of the absence of Friday night games. Trumbull’s Buddy Bray noted that the contest against Ridgefield would have had a much larger crowd on a Friday.
The Eagles will have just one league Friday night home game all year.
No. 1 Trumbull (6-1, 3-0) vs. No. 8 New Canaan (4-2, 1-2)
No. 2 Danbury (4-2, 2-1) vs. No. 7 Greenwich (4-1, 2-1)
No. 3 Ridgefield (4-2, 2-1) vs. No. 6 St. Joseph (4-1, 3-0)
No. 4 Wilton (5-1, 2-0) vs. No. 5 Fairfield Warde (4-1, 2-0)