By Dave Ruden
One team has been considered a state championship favorite since the first day of practice. The other got hot late and the necessary help on the final day of the regular season to reach the postseason.
St. Joseph is considered one of the favorites when the CIAC Class M Tournament gets under way Tuesday night. Ridgefield is a Class LL longshot.
One quality the teams share is optimism.
“You talk to people about LL and anything can happen,” said Ridgefield coach Kevin Callahan, whose 8th-seeded team will play at No. 1 Newtown, which is undefeated. “The records are what they are. The bar is high. We hope to make adjustments.”
The Tigers are 9-2 and peaking at the right time. Their lone losses are to St. Joseph (41-12) and Darien (19-14), the top seed in Class L, a game when their best player, running back Will Bonaparte, was sidelined after suffering a hip pointer in the first quarter.
Ridgefield is riding a four-game winning streak. The defense has allowed just 26 points during the run.
“Their offense can hurt you at any time,” Callahan said of the Nighthawks. “The challenge will be on the defensive side of the ball. I think we give them the same kind of problems they give us. The question is which defense will make the plays.”
The loss to St. Joseph, in the third game of the season, was the only one where the Tigers were not competitive. It was both a low point and turning point for the team.
“I think St. Joseph was embarrassing for us,” Callahan said. “We are a much more confident team now and the win over McMahon did a lot for us.”
The Senators were unbeaten when it traveled to Tiger Hollow last month and suffered a 44-7 loss.
With no margin for error, Ridgefield has essentially been playing elimination games starting with a win over Norwalk on Nov. 1.
“I think we are getting a little respect, which is nice,” Callahan said.
Respect has not been an issue for the Cadets, who are 10-2 and seeded second. They will open against No. 7 Ledyard (9-2) at Trumbull High School.
“We’re ready to play,” said St. Joseph coach Joe Della Vecchia. “We are really working on schemes and making sure we are crisp.”
The Cadets are 10-2, with both losses coming to New Canaan, most recently 10 days ago in the FCIAC championship game. They have wins over Fairfield Prep, Darien and Ridgefield — all state playoff teams — as well as Brien McMahon and Trumbull.
The 61-26 win over the Eagles on Thanksgiving, coming off the conference final, was a stabilizer.
“I was a little worried how we would be because we had a rough night and the kids were really disappointed,” Della Vecchia said. “We thought we had an opportunity to win the game.”
Della Vecchia said Ledyard will pose problems for his team.
“They have a couple of backs who are pretty quick,” Della Vecchia said. “They are a tough team with tough kids. I think we have played really good defense the last couple of weeks and we have to keep that going.”
Offense has been a constant for St. Joseph, which has scored 40 or more points in eight of 11 games.
“We have to keep doing what we’re doing and finish drives,” Della Vecchia said. “There are eight teams in our class and eight teams that want to win. It’s how bad you want it. We have to be ready to go.”