Ridgway, West Haven experience triumph, tragedy in journey to LL semifinals

West Haven football coach Ed McCarthy is congratulated by his players on his 322 career win. McCarthy's Blue Devils defeated Hamden 49-7 to achieve the milestone victory. John Vanacore - for the Register

West Haven football coach Ed McCarthy is congratulated by his players on his 322 career win. McCarthy’s Blue Devils defeated Hamden 49-7 to achieve the milestone victory. John Vanacore – for the Register

West Haven linebacker Jesse Ridgway stretches before a game played earlier this year. He and the Westies continue to honor the memory of Ridgway's sister, who died earlier this year. (Arnold Gold - New Haven Register)

West Haven linebacker Jesse Ridgway stretches before a game played earlier this year. He and the Westies continue to honor the memory of Ridgway’s sister, Casey, who died earlier this year. (Arnold Gold – New Haven Register)

WEST HAVEN >> Football, like life, is often filled with emotional extremes. Just ask players from West Haven, which has experienced both triumph and tragedy this season.

This past July, Casey Ridgway, 13, the sister of Westies standout offensive lineman/linebacker Jesse Ridgway, passed away after a two-year battle with cancer. Casey’s valiant fight against the disease united and inspired the West Haven community, especially the football team.

“That was a horrible thing for the family, to say the least,” West Haven coach Ed McCarthy said. “We think of their family all the time as to how well, externally, they’ve coped with it.

“It’s been a horrible thing. We knew Casey. She was a very, very special young lady. To lose a kid, to me, is unfathomable. I can’t even think of what it would do to me. Jesse and his family are certainly in our thoughts all the time.”

Soon after Casey’s death, the preseason began. With a strong nucleus of returning players, including Ridgway, running back Ervin Philips and quarterback Duane Gary, West Haven certainly had high expectations.

Football also became an outlet, something that helped Ridgway and the Westies manage their grief and begin the healing process.

“When my sister passed away, I think it gave us the mindset that we had to win,” Ridgway said. “And it gave us a reason to keep going.”

[CLASS LL state semifinal preview capsules]

The season, though, didn’t begin exactly as planned as the Westies suffered a season-opening loss to Greenwich. But West Haven rebounded, and won its next nine games and qualified for the Class LL state playoffs. After a 51-26 victory over Hall in the quarterfinals, the Westies are now one win away from reaching their first state championship game since 2003.

The Westies must defeat a familiar foe — Fairfield Prep — in today’s semifinal (2 p.m.) at McDougall Stadium in Trumbull.

It was just over a week ago that Fairfield Prep halted West Haven’s winning streak with a 29-20 victory on Thanksgiving. Prior to that loss, West Haven had won five straight in the series and 11 of the last 12 meetings with the Jesuits.

“We’ve had great success against them until last week,” McCarthy said. “They’re a very good team. We know we’re going to have to play well to win it.”

Fairfield Prep, big, strong and physical, scored 27 unanswered points and shut out West Haven in the second half last Thursday.

“They really know how to use their size to their advantage,” Ridgway said. “They’re a pretty physical and fast team. We just have to tackle better and block better on offense.”

Ridgway says it would be especially meaningful to not only defeat the Jesuits, but to reach the state final and get a shot at West Haven’s first championship in over a decade.

“It would be an honor,” Ridgway said. “We haven’t won a state championship (since 2002). It would bring a lot of pride back to West Haven High.”

It’s been a special season already, despite how the year began.

Earlier this season, McCarthy passed former Ledyard coach Bill Mignault to become the state leader in career victories.

“It’s been a real emotional roller coaster this season,” Ridgway said. “My sister has been on my mind a lot throughout the season, and with Coach Mac getting the most wins in CT, there’s been a lot of emotions going on this season. It would be special for us if we can get him a state championship the same year he became the most winningest coach in CT.”

A state championship will also be special for another reason.

“Before the game, when the national anthem is playing, I say a little prayer and think about her,” Ridgway said.

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