Expectations remain high for defending state champion Notre Dame of Fairfield
FAIRFIELD — The new banner hanging inside Rielly Auditorium displays a lot of information from Notre Dame-Fairfield’s incredible 2017-18 boys basketball season. Amongst the accomplishments it lists are the Lancers’ Division I championship, No. 1 ranking and perfect 27-0 record.
Suffice it to say, it’s a rather large banner.
For all the banner may list, something it won’t do is define the Lancers’ this season.
“We have to live in the now,” Notre Dame senior Phil Conner said earlier this week before a scrimmage with NFA. “You can’t live in the past. You can’t live in the future. You have to worry about what’s going on now.”
The Lancers state championship — the first for the school in boys basketball — was the culmination of years of frustration and close calls. Notre Dame had reached the state finals the previous three seasons before finally breaking through in March with a 65-60 victory over Sacred Heart.
Only a handful of players who saw minutes, including Conner and fellow senior Rodney Medor are back. The two seniors are the only returners who played in the Divison I final, but the pair represent only 15 of the Lancers’ 160 minutes logged in that game.
Despite an almost entirely new-look roster, Notre Dame coach Chris Watts says his players have convened this fall with a familiar goal: to win a state championship.
“These kids want to win the state championship and I’m going to everything I can to put it out in front of them,” Watts said. “I think that if they don’t make it there, I think they’ll be disappointed. It doesn’t sound crazy to me because I’ve been with these guys a couple weeks now.”
Watts knows this confidence may raise eyebrows.
“To Joe Public, for Notre Dame, with the returning players they have now, to hear them say if they don’t make it to the states they’ll be disappointed, for them to hear that, it sounds crazy,” Watts said. “It’s not the case. These kids are decent basketball players and they really have the goal to go back.”
Notre Dame opens its season Thursday night hosting the SWC Tip-Off Tournament against Capital Prep. The Lancers are buoyed by an influx of new faces in the forms of transfers, which include Max Mitchell (Greens Farms Academy), Cape Holden (Trumbull) and Blake Macklin (St. Joseph). The Lancers also added junior Chase Johnson from New Jersey.
Of the new players, Mitchell is generating the most buzz. The 6-foot-5 junior from Westport can play inside, but also has a nice 3-point touch.
“It’s going to be a pleasure for the SWC to see this kid,” Watts said of Mitchell. “He’s on everybody’s radar.”
The Lancers, of course, remain on the radar of every team on their schedule, especially teams like Immaculate and Newtown, which hope to make some noise within the SWC at the expense of Notre Dame.
“Coach told us we had an X on our backs. Every team in our conference is coming for us,” Medor said. “They think they can take advantage of us because we lost 6-7 players, but, no, that’s not the case. We can still be as good as last year.”
And that’s the recurring theme with Notre Dame players and coaches ahead of the new season. The Lancers don’t seem burdened by living up the history of last season, nor do they worry about the outside narratives being formed about their lack of familiar faces.
“The pieces we have, with my assistants really knowing the system and how to teach it, these kids are really learning. They’re getting better,” Watts said. “We’re going to be a hard team to beat, probably, in February. Right now we’re learning, but we’ll take the lumps right now because March is where we want to be.”