Pickens' Perspective: Despite falling short on FCIACs, Warde boys basketball trending is upward
The old cliche goes: To be the best, you have to beat the best.
But in a lot of ways, to be the best you have to see and learn from the best.
St. Joseph High School boys basketball is the best the FCIAC has to offer these days. The Cadets have it all, a "true" point guard, a 6-7 Division 1 swingman, role players who can play defense, depth, size, talent. They're almost flawless.
And for all that, their record is spotless. The Cadets finished a 20-0 campaign with their 64-39 drubbing of Fairfield Warde on Wednesday. It was only St. Joes' second undefeated season in the 50-year history of the school's basketball program.
No one in the league has played with St. Joseph, and yet Warde expected it would in its regular season finale on Wednesday night.
"I see teams play against St. Joes," Warde coach Ryan Swaller said. "And teams come in with the attitude, let's not let them win by 10 or more."
When I began covering them four years ago, the Mustangs were at the nowhere they are now. Warde was finishing its second straight winless season.
In 2008-09, the season when this batch of seniors were freshmen, Warde lost its first 14 games. The Mustangs broke a 59-game losing streak when they beat Ludlowe, but finished 2-18.
After back-to-back losing seasons the last two seasons, including a 7-13 2010-11 campaign in which the Mustangs missed states, they finally broke through this year. They won the Prep Holiday Classic, finished over .500, and qualified for the Class L state tournament.
Warde will now likely be the No. 19 seed in Class L and have to travel to East Catholic. But with a win over St. Joes, Warde's first-round state game would've been in its home gym.
The Mustangs finished tied for ninth in the FCIAC standings, missing the tournament by just a single game. Would the Mustangs like that Jan. 10, overtime loss at Wilton back? Of course. Would Warde love to be one point better than rival Ludlowe rather than the other way around? Certainly.
But Warde was in the conference tournament mix until the season's last day and that had never happened before.
"We haven't been in this situation the last couple of years," Swaller said. "Fighting for the FCIACs is one of our goals along with making states and winning the Christmas tournament.
"Going two out of three in our goals, I consider that to be very successful. Last year we were 0-3."
The Mustangs' program is clearly trending up, and it has Swaller to thank. The second-year coach has the perfect attitude to teach kids, and can back it up with credentials-- namely that 2004 National Championship ring from UConn.
At a public school, there are ebbs and flows every year. Talented kids graduate, new ones must come in and be bred to play right away. In Fairfield it is almost harder to combat, mostly because some talented kids get poached by Prep, St. Joseph and boarding schools.
But winning begets winning. The hardest thing for Warde to do was shake that losing culture, and it has done that. Building a program takes time and patience. Swaller has both.
Who knows what will happen if Warde continues to buy in. Warde's students section has created a home court advantage that it used to beat Trinity. Plus, by playing against programs like St. Joseph, Trinity and Ridgefield-- as well as ND-Fairfield and Prep in the Holiday Classic-- Warde will only get better.
Despite losing nine seniors, including all five of its starters, this is only the beginning for Swaller and the Mustangs on a ride to someday-- in the not too distant future-- being the best.