Season in review: What a long, strange trip it’s been

In trying to assess the FCIAC boys basketball season in one sentence, we choose to borrow from The Grateful Dead: What a long, strange trip it’s been.

I just went back and looked at my first The Starting 5 — my weekly ranking of the top five teams in the league — this season. Ridgefield was No. 2. Trinity Catholic was No. 3. Bridgeport Central and Wilton were nowhere to be found.

On the one hand, the parity we expected was there. No one expected both the Crusaders and St. Joseph to make it through the regular season with just one loss. Then there was a dropoff: the next three teams had four losses apiece. Teams 3-9 were separated by just four games.

Twelve of the league’s 19 school qualified for the state playoffs. All but four teams won at least six games, which means more tipoffs were started with greater uncertainty than ever before.

There were closer games, memorable games, spectacular moments, and teams that experienced meteoric rises —  including the one that won the league championship.

Let’s recap the season with the second annual Second-Chance Points awards.

TEAM OF THE YEAR: TRINITY CATHOLIC. A no-brainer here. With little depth and often two players on the court who were minimal scoring threats, the Crusaders were the most consistent team during the season, advancing to both the FCIAC and CIAC Class L championship games. None of the team’s three losses — St. Joseph, Bridgeport Central and Woodstock Academy — were to weak teams. What made Trinity successful? Two reasons: its masterly defensive play, and the Big 3 — Schadrac Casimir, Brandon Wheeler and Tremaine Fraiser — each exceeding expectations. Role players contributed in different ways and Mike Walsh did a great job putting all the ingredients together. Sadly, the Crusaders’ one really bad performance of the year came in the final game, against storybook Woodstock. Still, that does not tarnish a season’s body of work.

Trinity Catholic's Schadrac Casimir soared above the competition all season.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: SCHADRAC CASIMIR: No-brainer No. 2. Consider, no player during this two-decade run of excellence, that now counts 12 state final appearances, had a better individual season than Casimir just had. Not Rashamel Jones. Not Earl Johnson. Not Torey Thomas, Craig Austrie or Dave McClure. Some had years as good, and this does not mean Casimir is better than the aforementioned, but he earned the right to be mentioned in the same sentence with the Crusaders’ past stars. His 50-point performance against Greenwich was one shy of assistant coach John Smyth’s school record. And Casimir did it all unselfishly, averaging 4.4 assists per game. It is a season that will go down in state lore.

COACH OF THE YEAR: JOEL GERIAK: The Warriors were a team on the brink last season and Geriak was passed over in five other attempts for head coaching jobs before being elevated after Tim Tallcouch left Wilton for Newtown. When you have hungry players and a hungry coach, and the players have enough talent, good things happen. That was the case for Wilton this year, which rebounded from an 0-3 start to go 13-4 the rest of the way in the regular season, beat Westhill in the opening round of the FCIAC Tournament and took eventual champion Woodstock Academy to overtime before losing by two points in the Class L quarterfinals. Geriak squeezed everything out of a solid cast.

MOST SURPRISING TEAM: WESTHILL: No one, and I mean no one, was talking about the Vikings during the preseason. But at the three-quarter pole they were the No. 1 team in the conference before running into the league’s top teams in succession and losing five of six games. The Vikings rebounded to win two games in the state playoffs. This Westhill team played stifling defense and had better chemistry than any other from the school in a long time. Sophomore Jeremiah Livingston is a future star. A nice job by Vikings coach Howard White.

MOST DISAPPOINTING TEAM: RIDGEFIELD/ST. JOSEPH: We put two schools in this category, both with qualifications. The Tigers were the overwhelming preseason favorite because of their returning personnel. As it turns out, they probably played out to their talent level and were over-hyped in December. A lack of speed made for bad matchups against Trinity, St. Joseph and the Hilltoppers. Kurt Steidl was asked to do even more than he should have — and did it very well. As for the Cadets, they will be the first to tell you it was a letdown after a glorious regular season to get knocked out in the FCIAC semifinals — no shame there against the white-hot Hilltoppers — and then get stunned by another team that caught fire — Xavier — in their first state playoff game. It remains a puzzle why a program so strong has had so much trouble in the conference tournament. If you told them at the start of the year that they would finish 20-3 in Chris Watts’ first season as coach, the Cadets likely would have signed on. It was the successive losses to end the year that left the bitter aftertaste.

BEST GAME: ST. JOSEPH 87, TRINITY CATHOLIC 85 (OT): Another game for the ages chapter in what may be the FCIAC’s best rivalry in any sport. The Cadets overcame 5-point deficits in the final 47 seconds of regulation and the final minute of overtime, scoring the final seven points in what became an instant classic. Casimir scored 25 of his 31 points in the final 18 1/2 minutes. Quincy McKnight, in a display of hustle I have not seen surpassed on a basketball court, made two steals down the stretch to force overtime. Brandon Wheeler had 28 points and 15 rebounds for the Crusaders. Emotional leader Jake Pelletier scored 25 points, including five of the Cadets’ final seven in overtime. A game to remember.

MOST VERSATILE PLAYER: QUINCY MCKNIGHT: Read the last entry to see why McKnight is the easy winner here. He could beat you scoring, he could beat you on the boards and he could beat you with his defense. He carried the Cadets to overtime against Trinity, and then they carried on to the finish line after McKnight fouled out in overtime.

PRESEASON FAVORITE, 2014: BRIDGEPORT CENTRAL: The Hilltoppers have EVERYBODY coming back from the team that ended the conference season with eight straight wins, climaxed by the FCIAC final win over Trinity Catholic. Tournament MVP Tyler Ancrum is only going to get better, and he will have a talented and more mature team around him.

(I invite you to follow me on Twitter: @DaveRuden and like the Overtime Facebook fan page.)