Ed Huydic has been coaching high school basketball for 35 years, so trust him when he says the FCIAC is going to be just as tough and deep as it was last winter when Danbury rolled to an undefeated season and its first-ever conference championship.
“The league is going to be as strong as it’s been in many a year,” said Huydic, head coach at Staples. “It’s as good as I’ve seen in a long time.”
The conference was competitive enough last season, with as many as 13 teams still alive for an FCIAC playoff berth on the final day of the regular season. A number of good very good teams, including Staples, were left out in the cold.
“We finished in a four-way tie for eighth and lost on a tie-breaker,” said Huydic, whose team will be looking to reach the state tournament for the 31st straight season. “That’s happened to us a number of times over the past few years, so we’re itching to get back.”
This year, securing one of the eight playoff spots could be even tougher.
Defending champion Danbury lost dominant 6-foot-2 center Casey Smith, the FCIAC Player of the Year who is now playing at St. Joseph University. But the Hatters probably won’t fall too far. Danbury, which went 18-0 in the FCIAC and 25-1 overall last season, return two of the most talented players in the league in twins Rachel and Rebecca Gartner, junior guards who carried the Hatters to the league title after Smith suffered a torn ACL early in the FCIAC semifinals against Wilton.
Smith’s little sister, sophomore guard Allie Smith, gives Danbury another athletic presence in the backcourt. Smith is a strong ball-handler who should help the Gartner sisters wreak havoc on opponents in coach Jackie DiNardo’s up-tempo attack.
Westhill has just about everyone back from last season, including All-FCIAC senior forward Megan D’Allessandro, who averaged 19 points and 7.3 rebounds last season. Also back is junior forward Steph Roones, strong enough to carry the Vikings should D’Allessandro get shut down. After going 10-11 last winter, Westhill appears ready for a breakout campaign.
Wilton is coming off a 15-8 season, and could be poised for even greater success this year with the return of senior guard Casey Pearsall, a three-sport standout who was one of 12 national finalists for the Wendy’s High School Heisman Award. Pearsall will play lacrosse at Notre Dame, but she’s also very dangerous on the hardcourt. The Warriors have good size in the paint, a solid defender in senior Alyssa Malvarosa and an emerging talent in sophomore Hayley English. This could be a team to be reckoned with this winter.
Trumbull, which has appeared in the last two FCIAC championship games, lost Victoria Pfolh to graduation, but two of her younger sisters still remain; senior Alexa and sophomore Amanda. The Eagles will also have a solid returning post player in senior Erin Moore, so they should be right back in the mix.
“That should be the clear upper echelon of the FCIAC,” Huydic said. “Those should be the top four teams barring some craziness. Darien should also be good. But as for 6-7-8, it’s anyone’s guess.”
Darien is coming off a 12-9 campaign, and should be a contender once again with the return of senior Meg Marren, a second-team All-FCIAC pick in 2011-12, senior Kate Bushell and 3-point specialist Kelly Karczewski.
St. Joseph lost 1,000-point scorer Nancy Stablein, an All-FCIAC selection last year, and Jess Jowdy, from a team that went 18-5 a year ago. But the Cadets still have a solid group of young players to go along with senior Jenn Vazquez, a strong low post player.
Staples will be competitive as always, and could push for a playoff spot if young players like Madeline Schemel, a 5-11 center, and forward Kelcie Bobrow, can compete down low in place of All-FCIAC center Jess Coehlo, who was lost to graduation. The brunt of the Staples scoring will come from senior guard Erica Stein, who averaged 12.5 points per game last season, and senior forward Nikki Bukovsky.
Fairfield Warde should have one of its most balanced teams in years with a lineup comprised solely of juniors, including guard Tiara Fountain.
Norwalk can’t be counted out with the return of senior center Emma Oyomba, a four-year starter who averaged 13 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks as a junior. The Bears, who went 16-7 last season, also have one of the most complete players in the league in junior Eric Cohens, a great outside shooter and lockdown defender.
Stamford, which lost leading scorer Kelsey Cognetta to graduation, will feature a totally revamped lineup led by junior guard Kelsey Santagata, but could be a sleeper along with Greenwich, which has good size down low and the return of its leading scorer, senior guard Caroline Barrett.
McMahon is still pretty young, but has some talent led by juniors Jazmine Taylor and Kayla Croswell.
New Canaan and Trinity Catholic will have gaping holes to fill with the loss of guard Sarah Mannelly and 6-foot-1 center Mackenzie Griffin, respectively. Both were First-Team All-FCIAC a year ago.
The Rams will be led by senior guard Courtney Rogers and senior forward Kelly Armstrong while the Crusaders feature the return of senior forward Ali Palma, a second-team All-FCIAC pick last season, and senior forward Kellie Hurd.
Ludlowe might also have to fight to reach the FCIAC playoffs following the graduation of Briana Curran, now playing at Keane State.
Ridgefield is coming off a down season, but returns plenty of talent. The Tigers also have good depth.
Central, Harding and Bassick will face rebuilding seasons.
Lauralton Hall will look to defend its SWC title without three of its top players from a year ago following the graduation of Cassie Gildea and Nicola Matera.
The Crusaders should still be one of the top teams in the league behind All-SWC senior Olivia Levey, a solid presence in the paint who averaged 16 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks as a junior. Lauralton, which beat Pomperaug in the SWC finals and finished 23-2 overall, will have one of the top backcourts in the conference behind junior guard Carly Fabbri and senior Michelle DeSantis.
Kolbe Cathedral will give Lauralton Hall a run for its money with four of its top five scorers returning from last season, including All-SWC senior Jasmyne Fogle, who averaged 16 points, eight rebounds and three assists as a junior.
Barlow, which went 15-9 last year, will have a solid backcourt behind senior guards Sarah McNiff and Victoria Shea. Senior center Drew Bartro and senior forward Kelly Gilbert give the Falcons good balance. Barlow must prove it can win without standout Brittney Dumas, an All-State pick last season.
Bunnell has a huge hole to fill following the graduation of 6-foot center Sha’Quira Palmer, an All-State pick last season. The Bulldogs do have their floor general returning with junior point guard Jess Bogdwicz coming back.
Notre Dame of Fairfield lost some serious talent in All-SWC forward Bianka Bell, but still has plenty returning in 5-foot-11 junior forward Brianna Mann and senior guards Jovan Kingwood and Amber James.
In the SCC, Amity will be powered by the return of junior guard Chloe Brinton.
In the NVL, Torrington has won at least 20 games in each of the last four seasons, while Watertown returns two of its top three scorers from last season's 17-win season.
Thomaston won the Berkshire League title a year ago before reaching the Class S quarterfinals.