Entering the 2013-14 winter high school sports season, two sports stood out when others viewed the state of athletics among the Falcons, Mustangs, Jesuits and Lancers.
Two state titles were being defended in boys ice hockey -- Fairfield Prep for its 2012-13 CIAC Division I championship and the Fairfield co-op, of Fairfield Warde and Fairfield Ludlowe players, for its Divsion II state title. Notre Dame-Fairfield made it to the Div. I tournament, too.
Then there was wrestling in which Warde was runner-up to New Milford for the Class L championship, with Ludlowe No. 8 among the 26 schools that scored points in that meet. In the State Open, the Mustangs were No. 5 and the Falcons 26th among the 96 teams that had wrestlers qualify from one of the four class meets. Factor in Fairfield Prep returning senior Nick Crowle, who was third at heavyweight in Class LL in 2013, last year along with the Jesuits finishing 16th in Class LL and 55th at the Open last winter. So, the picture is clear, wrestling in town is impressive.
The accomplishments by the Ludlowe and Warde gymanstics teams last winter should not be discounted either. The Falcons were FCIAC runners-up to Wilton and placed third in Class L, while the Mustangs were fifth of 10 teams in the conference championships and fifth in Class M in 2012-13.
This winter, the ice has been a little more slippery. For the first time in years, Prep has lost to a team in state and to a team from the FCIAC, in a 1-0 victory by Darien over the Jesuits on Dec. 21. Prep's record improved to 6-2-1 after defeating West Haven 8-2 on Wednesday; the Jesuits are rated No. 2 in the state. The Fairfield co-op (2-5-0) started off with four straight losses, in which it scored six goals, before defeating St. Joseph 3-2 on Jan. 8 and the Norwalk/McMahon co-op 6-1 on Jan. 11. The Lancers lifted their record to 4-3-0 with a 7-3 win over St. Joseph on Wednesday, and they are ranked seventh in the state.
It is too early to cast boys ice hockey in Fairfield as better than 2012-13, the same or worse. Prep's record won't be as impressive as last season's and the public high school co-op will need to generate more goals on a consistent basis to make a serious bid to defend its title. The Lancers will have to make some more improvements, too, to be a more solid team once the tournaments roll around.
Wrestling is too early to tell as well. Warde and Ludlowe haven't fallen off the pace four weeks into the season, though the Jesuits have yet to win a dual match.
Among the other CIAC sports in town -- the Fairfield co-op boys and girls skiing teams are defending state championships from last year in non-CIAC-sanctioned competition -- the one that jumps out collectively is girls basketball. Notre Dame-Fairfield was the Class M finalist last winter, but returning just two players with experience left veteran coach Eric DeMarco not to forecast any unbeaten streak at the season's start. The Lancers improved to 4-5 with a 42-41 win over Masuk (4-6) on Tuesday, their third victory in their last four games. While warning that Notre Dame wouldn't be firing on all cylinders early on, DeMarco said in the preseason that he had a sense the Lancers could be a good team by the end of the regular season, which will come on Feb. 18. That might be headed there.
This brings us to the Falcons and Mustangs. After Tuesday's games -- Warde beat Norwalk 59-23 and Ludlowe defeated Bridgeport Central 72-35 -- their combined record was 18-2 in which a win and a loss came against each other when the Falcons beat the Mustangs 51-50 on Dec. 30 to claim the annual Todd Burger Tournament. So, out of town, they were 17-1.
In case your calculator's not handy, that's a .944 winning percentage.
It is not time to print up tickets for a Warde-Ludlowe FCIAC final, but if you're someone who likes to be proactive, you can order tickets for their quarterfinal games on Feb. 22. A teamwide stomach flu that lasts a month is about the only agent that could prevent either from qualifying. They are good enough -- and deep enough -- to withstand the threat of any major injury changing their prospects for conference tournament qualifying.
Last Friday, both teams (now 9-1) made the grade for the Class LL state playoffs with their eighth victories of 2013-14. Warde beat New Canaan 60-18 in Fairfield for its eighth win, while Ludlowe visited Stamford to post a 69-34 win over Trinity Catholic for victory No. 8. They meet each other Feb. 11 at 6 p.m. at Warde.
"It shows that there are so many talented players in town. Basketball right now in Fairfield is at a high level," Warde coach Dave Danko said on Jan. 10 after the Mustangs qualified for the states.
The cross-town rivals' formulas have been similar. Each is receiving strong coaching -- Warde from the veteran Danko (20th year combined, along with Fairfield High School) and Ludlowe from Sarah Huntington, who is in year No. 4 with the Falcons. Each has depth, speed, confidence, athleticism and basketball smarts at his or her disposal. Neither team is among the tallest in the FCIAC, though Ludlowe has a tad more size; but Warde has perhaps a bit more depth. Their defenses are highly effective.
Neither team is senior-dominated, so this might be a building-block year for each, making 2014-15 possibly a year to look for a Mustangs-Falcons FCIAC final.
Both stress team concepts, and unity and single-minded purpose have been displayed on the court consistently. Yet basketball -- more than any other team sport at whatever the level or gender -- is a star-driven sport. Caroline Pangallo, of Ludlowe, won MVP of the Burger tourney, by exhibiting stellar scoring, play-making and leadership. Teammate Pauline Blatt was a second-team all-conference player a year ago and has been at least at that level again. For Warde, seniors Kaitlin McKenna and Tiara Fountain made All-FCIAC teams last season and most likely will garner votes again in 2013-14.
Each team had identified new players to its mix as well. This could be the beginnings of an up cycle.
And the resiliency that all teams need to go deep in the playoffs, regardless whether that's the conference or state tournament, is revealing itself. Warde rattled off three wins after its loss to Ludlowe two weeks ago. Ludlowe began 2014 with a loss to Trumbull (7-2) on Jan. 6, yet responded with wins over Ridgefield, which had won four of its last five games, and Trinity Catholic.
Watching how these teams play out the regular season should be a treat for fans of the sport. And when your eyes aren't on girls hoops, take a gander at the boys ice hockey and wrestling action.