Ridgefield still trying to find its groove

Ridgefield came into this season as the popular pick to win the FCIAC championship, based on having three returning starters, though it has never before won a conference title.

That is an unusual position to be in, and thus far the burden on the players has been evident. You want your favorite to have, not cockiness, but a little bit of a swagger. That is a difficult mindset when you lack the portfolio, with your trophy case empty.

Last Tuesday against Trinity Catholic, a team that was expected to be a middle seed in the league playoffs but has well exceeded expectations, the Crusaders played like it was a championship game. The Tigers looked like, well, a team unaccustomed to having a target on their back. They failed to come close to matching Trinity’s intensity, resulting in a 23-points loss. That was followed by a defeat at Bridgeport Central that left them four games out of first place and just one ahead of Staples and Wilton, currently tied for the last two playoff spots.

Ridgefield coach Carl Charles admitted his team’s preseason stature has weighed on his players.

“I think so,” Charles said in a telephone interview Sunday morning. “When everybody thinks you are going to be the team to beat, everyone is going to come into your gym jacked for you. We bring out the best in everybody. I guess that’s good that people respect you, but you’ve got to be able to go.”

One FCIAC coach I spoke with last week offered what is the popular analysis about the Tigers to date: “They aren’t as good as they were last year, and I thought they’d be better than they were last year.”

Charles didn’t disagree.

“I think right now we are in a little bit of a rut,” Charles said. “It happens at all levels, and for whatever the reason we’ve been in a slump. We are trying to get their confidence back and see them perform like we are capable of.”

Ridgefield star Kurt Steidl has attracted double teams all season, like this one against Bridgeport Central on Friday night.

Ridgefield’s four losses — the first two were to St. Joseph and Norwalk — have been against elite teams in the conference, but good teams beat other good teams.

I wouldn’t be so quick to write off the Tigers, as some others have, because there is still a lot of talent on the team. But there are a number of holes that need to be fixed. Here are some of the things they need to do to get their groove back before the postseason:

— Players other than Kurt Steidl need to step up. When only one player is scoring consistently, as has been the case for Ridgefield, it is easy for opponents to focus their defenses on that player. Steidl, who scored his 1,000th career point Friday night, has drawn more crowds than the opening of a hot new Broadway show. He needs help. Brothers Jeff and Patrick Racy each have go-to player skills. They might be the two players most in need of that strut, able to shake off a few missed early shots.

— Ridgefield misses Seth von Kuhn. The one question mark for the Tigers coming in was their point guard play. Sometimes people don’t realize they have a good thing until it is gone. The graduated point guard was a consistent playmaker.

“I don’t think our point guard play is terrible,” Charles said. “Is is as good as last year? No. It is uncharacteristic but we are turning the ball over and we are not getting pressed. We normally get 60-65 shots a game. Against Central there were 23 times we didn’t get a shot off.”

— The defense needs to again set the pace. When the Tigers are at their best, it is usually because their active zone gives opponents fits. But teams have been solving that zone thus far, shooting over it or finding paths to the basket. They need to step up their energy level.

“On defense we are usually stifling,” Charles said. “We are not stifling this year like we were last year. Last year we were all about dictating tempo. The decision we made at the beginning of the season was, because we are more athletic and have more depth, we would try to be a fast-break team, up-tempo and utilize our skill set better. For the most part we’ve been successful.”

Some of these issues are more easily solvable, some could be a lingering question mark. The Tigers are still 10-4, so it is not like they are in a free-fall, but they will need to find the answers over the next eight games to reach not only the expectations of others, but more importantly their own goals.

“I am confident,” Charles said. “I really believe in these kids. I really like our kids. They are disappointed and hurt by what is happening, but they have the character to do what we need to turn it around.”

The Starting 5

1. ST. JOSEPH (13-1): The Cadets seem to have locked into cruise control and are rolling right along in the speed lane.

2. TRINITY CATHOLIC (13-1): The Crusaders were, as expected, flat coming off the Ridgefield game in sleepwalking past Brien McMahon on Friday. The may not be as lucky with the same effort Tuesday against a Fairfield Ludlowe team that thrives on lulling opponents to sleep.

3. WESTHILL (13-1): The ladies who work the entrance at home games have been giving me a hard time about not showing the Vikings enough love, even threatening to start charging me the $5 to get into games. I’ve shown the Vikings plenty of love — they are a fun team. And like everyone else, it is not unreasonable to wonder how they will do against teams like St. Joseph and Trinity until facing them at the end of the season.

4. BRIDGEPORT CENTRAL (10-3): Can you call a team that would currently be the No. 4 seed in the FCIAC playoffs a sleeper? If so, the Hilltoppers are my sleeper pick.

5. RIDGEFIELD (10-4): I know the Tigers lost to Norwalk, which has a half game lead in the standings. I just think if the teams both meet again and bring their A games, Ridgefield would win a very close contest.