The general feeling at the beginning of this season — and one shared here — was that the prospects for Staples, with its strongest roster in years, were high. Like mid-seed in the FCIAC Tournament high.
The outlook took a change during a four-game losing streak, which was started by a head-scratching loss to Darien, that left the Wreckers at 3-5. Suddenly, the question was not how high a seed, but whether they would even qualify for the league playoffs.
What a difference a month makes. Starting with an impressive win at Bridgeport Central, the Wreckers have won seven of eight, the one loss by just three points to St. Joseph.
If the season ended today, Staples would be the 7th seed. It is just one game away from the 5th seed. And it could easily run the table and win its final four games.
So why the turnaround?
“We continually have had leadership from Peter Rankowitz and James Frusciante,” said Staples coach Colin Devine, referring to his two best players. “But the big difference since the end of the four-game losing streak has been on the defensive end. We have turned it up on defense and controlled the defensive boards. I give the kids credit. The effort has gotten better and better.”
The Wreckers got another turn under the spotlight Friday following their 53-50 win over Westhill, which was the last remaining team unbeaten in conference play. Given the parity in the league, that outcome should not be viewed as an upset, but rather a quality win.
The Vikings have flourished behind their midcourt trap, but Staples was the first team that failed to succumb, turning the ball over just 13 times.
“We really survived their pressure,” Devine said. “We took care of the basketball.”
Rankowitz has been one of the league’s most valuable players. Despite being at the top of every opponent’s game plan each night, he is still averaging 19 points a game.
“That’s why I am really, really proud of Peter,” Devine said. “He gets every team’s best effort every night and still gets it done.”
Frusciante, considered by many the FCIAC’s most outstanding football player last fall, has played a strong No. 2 on offense. And the Wreckers have been getting contributions elsewhere. Against Westhill, it was Ross Whelan’s turn; he scored 13 points.
One other person deserves a lot of the credit: Devine. He might be the leader of a pack of very good young coaches in the league. Devine has been with the Wreckers now for six years, and he gets the ultimate compliment from his peers: he gets the most out of his talent.
The Wreckers are going to be a team no one wants to play in the postseason. Then again, come playoff time they likely could be one of the favorites and the targeted rather than sleeper.
“The credit goes to the kids,” Devine said. “They have really responded. They have learned a lot from the losses, they have learned a lot from the wins. We are trying to play our best basketball at the end. We’ve talked about playing every game like a playoff game, and only focus on the game ahead of you.”
Sizing up Tuesday’s best games
GAME OF THE NIGHT
Ridgefield (12-4) at Fairfield Ludlowe (8-8): Interesting game. The Falcons are fighting for an FCIAC playoff spot and have overachieved by making teams play at their pace. The Tigers are trying to earn a top seed and not fall back to a crowded pack. Their style is similar to Ludlowe’s, so they might be better suited to handle it.
OTHER GAMES OF NOTE
Trinity Catholic (15-1) at Wilton (9-6): The Crusaders are currently tied for the top seed; the Warriors have a tenuous hold on the 8th and final seed. Wilton is a tough place for opponents to play. Just ask St. Joseph, which lost there by 21 points.
Bridgeport Central (11-4) at Norwalk (12-5), Wednesday night: Two middle-of-the-packers that could make a strong league playoff run. Right now the Hilltoppers have been the more consistent team.
The Starting 5
1. ST. JOSEPH (15-1): The trio of Quincy McKnight, Jake Pelletier and Jon Dzurenda are playing their best basketball of the season right now.
2. TRINITY CATHOLIC (15-1): Which trio is better, the Cadets’ or Trinity’s Schadrac Casimir, Brandon Wheeler and Tremain Fraiser?
3. WESTHILL (14-2): The Vikings have been living off their defensive pressure, and saw what happened against Friday when it was solved. We will learn more about the Vikings during their three-game stretch with Trinity Catholic (Thursday), Ridgefield and St. Joseph.
4. BRIDGEPORT CENTRAL (11-4): I still think the Hilltoppers have all the pieces to win the FCIAC title.
5. RIDGEFIELD (12-4): Are the Tigers championship caliber or a solid team that was overrated during the preseason? Honestly, at this late point in the season, I don’t know the answer.