GREENWICH — There was being hired for the first head job, the first meeting, the first spring game.
On Friday evening, there was the biggest first of all for John Marinelli: the first practice as coach at Greenwich High School. Marinelli is running out of firsts, which have been well chronicled both because of his name and he landed the state’s most coveted offseason opening.
“For me it’s the greatest two hours, on the field for the first time,” Marinelli said, after putting his new players through a series of conditioning drills that were performed at the pace of a quick hitting tornado.
The only first left comes on Sept. 18: the first game, against Trinity Catholic. The Cardinals are on the clock, quite literally if you go to their home page, at 25 days and counting.
Marinelli is now able to stop talking about what is new, which is a good thing as he becomes more enmeshed in his position. As he said, coaching is coaching.
“It doesn’t feel different,” Marinelli said as he departed Cardinal Stadium in darkness. “It’s a different scene. The scenery is different, the trees are different, the field is different. I feel like I was very well trained by a great mentor, my father.”
Marinelli’s compliment, about his father, Lou, came unprompted. Marinelli brought up the venerable New Canaan coach several times without being asked. The questions have been and will continue to be asked.
“I feel great to be where I am,” Marinelli said. “I don’t want to say I was well-groomed, but I was given a lot of responsibility to allow me to do this.”
Marinelli will be under a microscope all season, most of all because the Greenwich football community is uncompromising and scrupulous, but of course because of his lineage. He was fortunate to have been given great responsibility as New Canaan’s offensive coordinator, which has smoothed the transition and allowed him to get his first head job at the age of 29. Marinelli called and devised the plays, turned the war room into a football coach’s technological playroom and handled social media, all of which have carried over 15 miles. All that is different is the shade of red on the uniforms, which Marinelli helped design for the Rams.
The two biggest takeaways on Friday is that there were about 20 more players in uniform from a year ago and the pace of drills.
“Our kids are eating breakfast fast, they’re going to sleep fast, they’re walking fast, they’re watching film fast, they are doing everything fast,” Marinelli said. “Tempo is not something you develop over night.”
It has been a big and positive adjustment for the Greenwich players. Former coach Rich Albonizio was in the middle of the spectrum, measured between old-school ways and the move to the popular spread attack that has swept the sport. It had served Albonizio, who is now an assistant at Trinity Catholic, well for 18 years, including a 7-4 mark in his farewell season that would have brought acceptance if not high praise at most places, but not in Greenwich. There were other ancillary factors for the coaching change, but the debate reached its expiration date long ago.
Looking back does good for no one, least of all the Greenwich players.
Two of the Cardinals’ captains spoke with excitement that inevitably comes with any new moves and the prospects of an optimistic future.
“It’s awesome,” said tight end/defensive end Scooter Harrington. “We worked harder over the summer trying to get better for the year. The young guys came out well prepared so we are excited for the season. Our team has taken on a different goal of getting better every day. We are focusing on Trinity in game one.”
Running back Luke Bienstock, who ironically had his breakout game a year ago against New Canaan, did not participate in spring football, so he truly is learning on the fly.
“The big difference for me is the speed,” Bienstock said. “We are definitely a much faster team. If you’re in shape — and a lot of kids put in a lot or work in the offseason because we know it’s a special season — it’s not as hard. It’s something you have to work on over time.”
Marinelli hasn’t yet mastered fitting 90 minutes into a 60-minute time slot, but it is a goal to conquer on the path to returning Greenwich to title contention.
“We’re running fast-paced practices because we want to be fast on offense, defense and special teams,” Marinelli said. “Everyone knows we are going to be a fast-paced team. That’s our goal, to be the fastest team in the country.”
That would, no doubt, become Marinelli’s new favorite first.
Graphic by Cooper Boardman