By Dave Ruden
I have to confess to being woefully behind this preseason and just started putting on my rally cap.
Part of it has been spending the past six weeks forming my own media company and launching this site. Part of it is because a procedure on both feet that was supposed to take a long weekend to heal has kept me essentially housebound for the same six weeks.
But no one cares about my problems. Like everyone else, I am anxious to see how the FCIAC-SCC Challenge plays out. It is hard to believe there has ever been more anticipation for the first week of the high school football season than this one.
Equally compelling is what appears to be the most wide-open pursuit for the FCIAC title in some time. The finalists the past few years were determined, it seemed, by just a handful of games. Maybe that will be the case this year. But the top teams have difficult schedules, which could open the door for a real playoff race.
New Canaan is the consensus favorite to win its first league title since 2008, and rightfully so. But the Rams, who have had one of the league’s easiest schedules the past few years, pick up Daniel Hand, Greenwich and Staples, plus they have St. Joseph and Darien. Can they navigate that obstacle course?
Many consider St. Joseph the second-best team in the league. The Cadets face Notre Dame-West Haven and Fairfield Prep. And that is in the first two weeks, followed by conference games against Ridgefield and Darien, with New Canaan down the road.
So who are the teams and players to watch, and which team will be pointing its index fingers skyward the Friday before Thanksgiving?
TEAM TO BEAT: NEW CANAAN. The Rams, with Nick Cascione at quarterback, will remain prolific. There are no go-to stars, but rather a stable of running backs and wide receivers that will contribute, and a sturdy offensive line. The reason to love New Canaan this year is the defense. There are four players — Michael Root, Cole Harris, Connor Buck and Zach Allen — who can dominate. The supporting cast is less heralded but athletic. Also, not that they are easy games, but Daniel Hand and Staples will likely be a notch below their recent dominance.
TEAM THAT COULD BE HURT MOST BY SCHEDULE: ST. JOSEPH. How great would it be if the Cadets’ trip to New Canaan on Nov. 1 has major playoff implications? It could very well be the first act to a championship rematch three weeks later. But there are traps everywhere, including an unheard-of six-game road trip. Jordan Vazzano is one of the state’s best quarterbacks, the offensive line is a strength, though the team must compensate for the losses of wide receiver Jake Pelletier and top pieces on defense. If the Cadets reach the postseason, they will truly have earned it.
TEAM THAT EVERYONE IS CURIOUS ABOUT: WARREN HARDING. When was the last time the Presidents got so much preseason attention? That is what the presence of Jack Cochran will do. Love him or hate him — and there are people in both camps — it is hard not to pay attention to Cochran, who has won eight state titles and been among the most controversial figures in state history. With a weak schedule, several coaches have said privately that Harding will win seven games. Others say there is not enough talent for even Cochran to work his magic. No matter how it plays out, people will be watching.
SLEEPER TEAM: BRIEN MCMAHON. The Senators won four of their last five games a year ago, and they open with seven winnable games before back to back contests against Ridgefield and St. Joseph. Expect running back Trey Forney to put up huge numbers.
OFFENSIVE MVP: JORDAN VAZZANO, ST. JOSEPH. Vazzano threw 27 touchdown passes a year ago. Pelletier, his favorite target, is gone, but with the offensive line giving him time, Vazzano could put up bigger numbers this season.
DEFENSIVE MVP: MICHAEL ROOT, NEW CANAAN. A close call here because it is hard not to love Jack Wynne anchoring Greenwich’s defensive line. But Root flies to the ball, has great instincts and is a game-changer opposing coaches must scheme against.
READY FOR PRIME TIME PLAYER: AUSTIN LONGI, GREENWICH. Longi got few touches as a sophomore, but the Cardinals will need more from the 5-foot-9 junior, who is equally effective out of the backfield or as a receiver, and is ready to deliver.
AND THE WINNER IS…..NEW CANAAN. The Rams are built for their demanding schedule, and this year even one loss should still get them to the championship game. St. Joseph, Greenwich and Ridgefield will all be in the chase. And while everyone is down on Staples — which is just fine with coach Marce Petroccio — it has a favorable schedule. All of which makes for a greater number of intriguing games and what should shape up as a great race.