It is being literal to call 2017 a banner year for the FCIAC. It was one of the richest in terms of state titles for the conference, while league playoffs were closely contested in most sports.
There were great games and individual performances, too many to get to in a best of list in which we decided to recognize not just teams, but athletes, fans, a topical issue and a couple of old teammates.
There were a number of worthy champions, like Greenwich’s boys soccer and volleyball teams, the Staples field hockey team and a number of track athletes deserving of more than just a passing mention.
Here then, in no particular order after the top spot, is one person’s top 17 memories from 2017.
1. Ridgefield Defeats Wilton In FCIAC Boys Basketball Final
This is definitely tops on my list, for a variety of reasons. You had two rivals reaching the conference championship for the first time, and it took two overtimes to decide a winner. There was no better atmosphere at any FCIAC sporting event; both schools’ student fan bases, with several hundred people each, filled their sections well over an hour before tipoff. Fairfield University’s Alumni Hall was a near sellout. People forget that this was not a particularly well played game, but more of a grind. That will long be forgotten on a night that etched itself in boys basketball final lore.
2. Darien Defeats Greenwich For Class LL Football Title
Two FCIAC teams reached the Class LL championship for the second consecutive year. With no conference final, this game essentially filled the bill, since Darien and Greenwich did not meet during the regular season. Played in a steady snow at Boyle Stadium that added to the aura, the Blue Wave jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead, but the unbeaten Cardinals, the surprise team of the season, rallied in a game that stayed close the rest of the way. There were big plays on both sides of the ball, great catches, clutch kicks and finally a big fourth-down stop late that led to an insurance touchdown that gave the Blue Wave a 31-22 win, third straight state title and another No. 1 ranking in the state.
3. Staples Wins Class LL Baseball Title
After an early exit from the FCIAC Tournament, the Wreckers rebounded, realized their potential and won their first state title since 2001 by defeating Amity in the teams’ second meeting in three years. Along the way, Staples had to defeat three league opponents in succession, starting with champion Wilton. The first two victories were shutouts, then came a wild 12-11 quarterfinal slugfest with Westhill. After a win over Ridgefield, the Wreckers ended one of the most remarkable streaks in state history: the Spartans’ 24-game straight wins in CIAC play and run of four straight state titles.
4. Ridgefield Wins Class LL Girls Soccer Title/Claire Middlebrook’s Goal
For two straight years the Tigers, with an All-Star lineup, were knocking on the door, winning FCIAC titles and reaching the state final before having their hearts broken by Glastonbury. This wasn’t supposed to be a rebuilding year, despite the graduation of seven senior starters, but no one was even penciling in Ridgefield as viable championship contenders. But a strong defense, an influx of good young players and tremendous chemistry helped the team reach the league semifinals before a memorable state tournament run. The Tigers allowed just two goals in four games, edged Glastonbury in the semifinals and then held off Staples, 2-1, for the title. Ridgefield’s first goal, a brilliant, perfectly placed set piece by Claire Middlebrook (see below), gets the vote here for Play of the Year.
5. Trumbull Wins Class LL Softball Championship
When the Eagles suffered an 11-0 loss to town rival St. Joseph in the opening round of the FCIAC Tournament, it was reasonable to wonder if a solid regular season had run out of steam. Instead, Trumbull banded together to win its first state title in the sport. This was a collaborative effort, with everyone in the lineup contributing a big hit at some point and pitcher Ally Szabo saving her best for the final two games of her career.
6. Caroline Curnal Named All-State In 3 Sports
Despite many college coaches lauding the benefits of three-sport athletes, they have become harder to find in an era of specialization. That makes the accomplishment of Ridgefield’s Caroline Curnal, who won All-State honors in basketball, lacrosse and volleyball, all the more impressive. Because of her schedule, Curnal doesn’t spend as much time on any single sport. Basketball is essentially a three-month commitment, yet she earned honors in her first year as a starter. There are more dominant athletes in single sports, but if there was a state award for the most versatile, Curnal would be a leading contender.
7. The Rise Of Greenwich Football
John Marinelli said when he was hired it would take five years to bring one of the state’s most venerable programs back to consistent excellence. The Cardinals appear to have arrived ahead of schedule because their unbeaten record and top ranking in the state prior to the Class LL loss to Darien certainly does not appear to be an aberration. Marinelli made an immediate impact getting players out, one reason quality depth was one of their best attributes. The offense was expected to be solid but the play of the defense was the biggest revelation. The Cardinals will be returning most of their best players and Marinelli’s biggest challenge will be finding playing time for them all next season, which may open with Greenwich again atop the polls.
8. St. Joseph Wins Three Fall State Titles
It was a great few weeks for the Cadets. The girls soccer team, with freshman forward Maddie Fried joining center midfielder Jessica Mazo and a veteran defense led by Tory Bike, followed up a league title with another state championship. The football team, with a potent offense led by quarterback David Summers, had a dramatic comeback against Ansonia in the Class S final. And in between, the top-seeded volleyball team that ran into streaking Greenwich and lost in the FCIAC final, rebounded to win the Class M crown.
9. Darien Boys Lacrosse Team Runs Win Streak To 54
It seems recently the debate with the Blue Wave is if the current team is the best in program history. The latest edition staked its claim with a 23-0 record, twin titles, a win streak that expanded to 54 games and the top ranking in the country. No team from the conference was more entertaining to watch. A strong case can be made Darien had the best team in any sport in the state.
10. Ridgefield Boys Hockey Team Wins Twin Titles
Fresh off a conference title, the Tigers made good on the high expectations that accompanied them all year by scoring three goals in a 24-second span in the opening period of what turned out to be a coronation, a 6-2 win over Northwest Catholic in the Division I final. It was just the program’s second state title, put together in large part by a strong senior class that never buckled to the pressure.
11. Wilton Fans Offer Big Assist
It is disappointing how crowds continue to drop at high school sporting events. There are still a few strong fan bases left in the FCIAC, but none equalled the Wilton student body during basketball season. They consistently filled the bleachers behind one basket at home games and made a strong impression when they took up a quarter of the stands at Fairfield Warde for the FCIAC Tournament. The entire school seemed to turn out for the league final against Ridgefield. No team had a better homecourt advantage than the Warriors.
12. Trumbull Girls Basketball Team Just Misses Quinella
The Eagles have always bought into the defensive pressure preached by coach Steve Tobitsch. In the FCIAC final against Stamford, that lockdown ability fueled a 19-2 run that led to a 44-35 win and the first title in six years. Not satisfied, the Eagles reached the state championship game before a loss to New London. Few teams had players that performed so well as a unit.
13. Changes In Lacrosse College Recruiting
The second most-read story on this site during the year was a profile of New Canaan’s Campbell Armstrong, a senior lacrosse player who is now at St. Lawrence. Armstrong was one of the state’s top performers, but because she peaked later in high school she got few feelers from Division I programs, which locked up players often during their freshmen and sophomore seasons. That is too early for a student to make such an important life decision, and doesn’t allow for players like Armstrong. Fortunately, the NCAA passed a rule that does not permit contact between coaches and high school players until the start of their junior year. That was long overdue. Division III sports are extremely competitive, but Armstrong and lacrosse players like her should have had as many options as possible.
14. New Canaan’s Lucas Niang, Zach Allen On NFL Radar
A few FCIAC players have made their way to the NFL. Greenwich’s John Sullivan is currently starting for the Rams, and St. Joseph’s Tyler Matakevich is a special teams demon for the Steelers. But how about high school teammates making their way to the professional ranks? That seems likely to happen with a couple of New Canaan graduates: Offensive lineman Lucas Niang at TCU and defensive lineman Zach Allen at Boston College. Both are considered eventual high draft picks.
15. Darien Girls Lacrosse Team’s Streaks Continue
Coach Lisa Lindley’s Blue Wave continue to deliver like a blue-chip stock each spring. They got better throughout the season to run their streaks to six straight league and five consecutive state championships. This was one of Darien’s better balanced teams, which overcame season-ending injuries to a couple of key players.
16. Wilton Baseball Team Wins FCIAC Title
High seeds have not always fared well in the FCIAC baseball tournament, in large part because the sport is not suited to a single-elimination format. The Warriors finished second in the league during the regular season and earned the chance to face rival Ridgefield in the final. Billy Black delivered a three-hit gem for a 2-1 win and the team’s second title in three years.
17. Danbury Wins New England Wrestling Championship
The Hatters have been one of the state’s most dominant programs ever, as evidenced by 29 FCIAC titles in 30 years. But this was one of Danbury’s most complete teams, and led by Jakob Camacho it won the New England title for the first time since 1990. The Hatters finished with 67 more points than runner-up Newtown.