WILTON — Management at Orem’s Diner in Wilton was expecting a normal Monday night business and staffed accordingly yesterday, though truth be told it would have been unexpected to properly accommodate the rush that took place at 9 p.m.
The line was not out the door, as it had been two hours earlier, a few miles north on Route 7, at Wilton High School, where the boys basketball team hosted Crosby in a Class L quarterfinal game.
A caravan of students headed to one of the town’s most popular eating establishments right after the Warriors’ 65-61 win over Crosby, sending them to a state Final Four for what is believed to be the first time in the sport.
It was an impressive scene. I know; Orem’s is the place I go to write in Wilton when on deadline. It was filled with joyous students, anticipating a snow day, celebrating their school’s feat. Like the Zeoli Field House, nearly every seat was filled. When the waitress apologized to me in advance for possible slower service, I told her I was happy to be low on the priority list — I cared more about the table than my egg-white omelette.
The scene was a good representation of what has taken place the past 2 1/2 months: a love affair between a town and a team with a growing popularity at a school with a tradition of success in soccer, field hockey and lacrosse, but little on the basketball court.
The Warriors had never reached the final of the FCIAC championship until two weeks ago, when it lost to Ridgefield in double overtime. Now they are again in unchartered territory, much to the delight of a student body that has demonstrated unwavering support, and a community that has made the Warriors the talk of the town.
“It is definitely different this year than in the three years prior,” said Colin Carroll. “This is definitely the most united I have seen the school and it is all because of the basketball team.”
Carroll is a senior who was a co-captain of the Wilton football team and now, along with Jake Ellison and AJ Hoffman, is a leader of the Warrior Tribe, the name for the student fan base. The three help organize the crowds through a private Facebook page. The stands behind the home basket have been filled with Wilton students at most games, but the Tribe had its coming-out party, so to speak, during the FCIAC semifinals at Fairfield Warde, with a crowd estimated at between 400-500 students. The numbers have remained consistent at the four postseason games since.
Carroll, who runs the Tribe Twitter account, said there are two forces at work.
“I think this senior class, we are spearheaded by the seniors on the team and they are all well known and really liked throughout the high school so everybody is friendly with them, everyone likes them pretty much,” Carroll said. “That feeds into six years ago we were bottom feeders in the FCIAC and we have kind of been building up and peaked at this moment, and everyone has joined behind us.”
The Warriors have persevered despite the loss of two key seniors — Jack Williams and Jack Wood — to season-ending knee injuries. Wilton’s depth was hyped at the beginning of the season, and now that asset has never been more valuable.
Players like Kyle Maatallah and Sean Breslin have stepped up offensively, unheralded sophomores like Ryan Schriber and Kyle Phillips have been called on for their defensive abilities, and Robbie Hermann had the offensive rebound that led to Drew Connelly’s go-ahead basket against Crosby. And when needed — like the FCIAC final — Matt Kronenberg has put Wilton on his shoulders.
The Warriors have become the end product of a number of different and necessary puzzle pieces, much to delight of their peers.
“The whole Tribe situation, it is also like a social event,” Carroll said. “At the FCIAC championship you’d see kids who you haven’t seen at a sporting event ever. Everyone wants to be there and be a part of it.”
Chris McDougal, the school’s athletic director, has watched with pride at what he hopes will be a transforming event.
“Our student section has been united throughout the year but they are gaining strength as we go through the tournament,” McDougal wrote in a text message today. “I’m hoping this continues each year to come. With a unified group of positive cheering we can’t lose. No matter what the score is.”
Carroll was at Orem’s last night after the Warriors’ final home game of the year.
“I have never seen that before,” he said. “Usually we go home after a game and finish up our homework and get ready for the next day of school. I’m pretty sure the snow day kind of helped a little bit. Most of the kids there last night were seniors and realized it was the last game at the Zeoli Field House. It was a little sentimental to be honest. The last game there, probably the last whiteout. Orem’s is kind of a sense of home for all the seniors.”
The Warriors now go to neutral sites the rest of the way. The No. 6 seeds, they face No. 2 Notre Dame-Fairfield tomorrow night. The good news: the game will be played at Warde.
“I’m thinking it is going to be like the FCIAC Tournament,” Carroll said of fan turnout. “I think we are going to have the same kind of crowd hopefully.”