When the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference announced last Tuesday morning that due to the coronavirus it was canceling the remainder of the state tournaments for several sports, the season came to sudden end. Among those affected was the Ridgefield boys basketball team, which had just repeated as conference champions and was set to begin the Division I state tournament with a 21-2 record, the best in program history.
Senior captains Luke McGarrity, Chris Knachel and Johnny Briody shared their thoughts on the CIAC’s decision, as well as Ridgefield’s recent FCIAC dominance and the team’s bond.
Where were you and what was your immediate emotional reaction last Tuesday when you heard about the CIAC deciding to cancel the remaining state tournaments?
McGarrity: “I was actually at my house during long-block free [period] when I found out that the winter season was ending. I was in total shock. I had heard some talk about the possibility of playing without fans, but I never thought the end of the season would be entirely canceled. I turned to my dad and said ‘My high school basketball career just ended. Just like that.’ The disappointment grew as the news really sunk in. I wasn’t ready for it to be over.”
Knachel: “I was in class and actually saw it first in a text from Coach Mac (Ridgefield head coach Andrew McClellan). I was just totally shocked and I never thought that canceling the tournament was possible. I also felt a bit angry that we would not be able to try and make a run in states.”
Briody: “When I heard we didn’t get an opportunity to prove ourselves in front of the state, I was surrounded by RHS hockey players in our student center, eating lunch. We all couldn’t believe it … and it took a couple of minutes to really understand what that meant. I was especially upset because it was then that I realized my basketball career was over, and I’m sure the hockey guys and my fellow senior teammates felt the same way.”
Now that a week has passed, do you feel any differently about the CIAC decision?
Knachel: “I do feel slightly different now. Although I didn’t love the decision I think it is justified with all that has gone on in our country. With the NBA, NHL, and NCAA seasons being postponed or canceled it only makes sense that ours was, too. I’m not sure there was really another way to handle this situation and it is simply unfortunate for all those involved. Players, coaches and fans all look forward to the state tournaments and I know everyone is upset that they did not happen this year.”
Briody: “Now that a week has passed, I understand the decision that the CIAC made. The virus has only spread and I can’t imagine how much worse it would be if the CIAC didn’t cancel the postseason.”
McGarrity: “I originally was very upset that they canceled the CIAC tournament, but always respected their decision based on the fact that I realize they were just trying to protect the athletes. Now that a week has passed, and so many other events have been canceled, I am still upset we didn’t get to participate in CIACs, but my feelings have shifted to being incredibly grateful that we were able to participate in and win the regular season and the FCIAC tournament before all of this happened.”
McClellan thought that Ridgefield could “do some things in state tournament that it hasn’t before.” Do you agree? If so, why?
Briody: “Since the CIAC has changed the format of the state boys basketball tournament to divisions regardless of size of school, it has been difficult for a small suburban town like Ridgefield to compete with the state’s best. However, this year was different because we had a ton of trust in our senior class and our coaching staff. We believed our team chemistry and confidence would be able to compete with the state’s best: East Catholic, Windsor, etc. Ever since the summer, our coaching staff has preached the phrase ‘Late March’ into our minds, allowing us to believe and build up the confidence that we really could compete with these teams. It’s a shame that we weren’t able to see what we were truly made of in the end.”
McGarrity: “I agree with coach 100%. I believe we were ready to make some noise in the CIAC tournament. I may be biased, as the eight seniors on the team this year have played together for years, some of us since biddy ball. Our chemistry was like no other team I have played for. We love playing together, we support each other and we all bought into coach’s system. We had the same goal as a collective group and always put team before ourselves. I think we had the talent and the personnel to match up with many different styles of teams, which we think would have allowed us to be successful in the state tournament. We were really looking forward to competing against some of the best teams in the state.”
Knachel: “I definitely agree with coach on that statement. I think this team was very special and could’ve showed that even more in the state tournament. We played together and could beat teams that were more talented by playing a team game and being the better basketball team. Even after our great season I don’t think Ridgefield is taken seriously enough in the state. I think the CIAC tournament this year would’ve been our chance to show that we belong up there with the best teams in the state.”
Was last Tuesday after school your final meeting as a team? Did the team do anything as a group that day or afterwards?
McGarrity: “Last Tuesday after school was our last official meeting as a team. We gathered in the team room and watched the highlight videos from the past three FCIAC championships. The seniors also got up and spoke about what the program has meant to them, and how much of a brotherhood we are. Our banquet has been postponed, but we are still looking forward to celebrating our accomplishments and each other when this all settles.”
Briody: “We met as a team once we heard the news and treated it like our end-of-the-season talk, except this time it wasn’t after a loss in the playoffs. The seniors all got a chance to speak to the underclassmen and it was a very quiet and sentimental room. We watched highlight reels from our season that will go down in the books for RHS basketball’s best season ever.”
Knachel: “Last Tuesday was our last full meeting with the team. We have all been in contact since then but have not met again as a team. On Tuesday we all met and both the coaches and some of the players shared their feelings about the season. We also took some time to remember our four years and all we have accomplished.”
Was the abrupt ending to the season somewhat easier to take since you had won the FCIAC title?
Knachel: “I think winning the FCIAC title helps a little, but not much. At the beginning of the season we set out a goal to play into late March. We wanted to make a run in the state tournament and we were not able to accomplish that goal. Although we ended our season at the top we still had more we wanted to prove and we weren’t satisfied. I think for other teams, especially in other sports where they did not win their conference title, the news may have been even more devastating, but it was still very hard for us to hear.”
McGarrity: “We were hungry to make a run in the states and confident we could do so. That was always one of our goals from the beginning. Therefore, ending the season so abruptly was certainly difficult. However, it definitely made it easier knowing that we won our last game together and that it was the FCIAC championship.”
Briody: “On a positive note, we were not only able to end our season on a win, which not many teams can say, but we were able to end it on a 14-game winning streak. However, I would say the abrupt ending wasn’t any easier because that FCIAC title wouldn’t have changed our mindset going into the state tournament.”
Ridgefield has now won three FCIAC titles in four seasons after winning no titles in the first 40-plus years of the program. What has changed?
Briody: “In my biased opinion, we have the best coaching staff in the state. However, if you look at the success that our program has had since Coach Mac has stepped in, it’s hard to argue. Our senior class has taken part in these three FCIAC titles but it has been the coaching staff’s ability to build a program rather than just a team. Our offseason schedule is like no other. We win these titles in the offseason and in the practices leading up to games.”
Knachel: “The first thing I’d say is the coaching staff has turned the program into a powerhouse. Both on offense and on defense I think we are as, if not more, prepared than any other team in the state. I think with this coaching comes a boost of confidence. We go into every game feeling as if we are the better team even if we may be out-matched. All the guys who have played the last four years have never been afraid of getting their shot blocked or playing against a team that is bigger and more athletic than us. I think as the younger kids watch us they, too, develop a greater confidence, which carries into our program once they arrive. Although some may say the FCIAC has gotten weaker, I think we play to our strengths and show the importance of playing team basketball. There are few games where we are more athletic than the other team, but we are always more disciplined, poised and prepared.”
McGarrity: “I think Coach Mac and all our assistant coaches have put a lot of time into Ridgefield basketball, not only at the high school level but youth level and the girls side as well. There are many opportunities throughout the summer and the offseason to work hard, learn the system and improve your game. With those opportunities also comes the chance for the older players to mentor younger players, and before you know it there is a culture being formed. I was lucky enough to play in all three FCIAC championship games, and while the players change I can attest that the commonalities of all three were hard work, dedication, preparation, commitment level, and a buy-in from both coaches and players. I believe all of that plays a part in emerging as the top program in the conference.”
Is there one moment that stands out as a microcosm of the season?
McGarrity: “The one thing that I always come back to when I think of this team is our friendship. It started many years ago and has never wavered. Throughout the season when we would get together off the court, we would always have an amazing time. These experiences helped build chemistry and led to success together on the court. We have an inseparable bond, which I think was evident if you watched us play.”
Briody: “I would say our team bonding get-togethers contributed more than people would expect to the success of our season. Team chemistry was our biggest attribute as a group, and our ability to hang out and have fun outside of the gym was very special.”
Knachel: “I think our team chemistry was very (reflective) of our entire season. All the teams I’ve been a part of at Ridgefield had great team chemistry, but with this team it was off the charts. I think it is one of the things that made our team as great as it was. We were all best friends both on and off the court and it allowed us to play as more of a team and embrace the team-first mentality. No one was ever selfish or hunting for their own shot. Everyone always played their role and did it to the best of their ability.”