The New Canaan football team needed a circuitous route last year to earn a state tournament berth for the 13th straight year.
The Rams will need to complete the same path, with a win on Thanksgiving against Darien, the No. 1-ranked team in the state, to keep that streak alive.
New Canaan (7-2) suffered 28-point losses to St. Joseph and Greenwich, schools that have already qualified for the playoffs, to lose the luster after opening as the No. 1 team in the state polls.
Marinelli made the case that New Canaan could end up comparable to a college program positioned to compete for the national title.
“I told that to the kids, if you look at Michigan. They lost their opening game and look at them now,” Marinelli said. “And we’ve gotten better. It took us a little bit longer. We’re a different team than we were then. I think we’re ready for this challenge. If we win we deserve to go and if we lose we weren’t as good as we thought. I feel good about it.”
If the Rams are wearing rally caps, Darien (9-0) is looking for maintenance. Riding a three-year run as state champions, the Blue Wave were projected to be a little less talented because of considerable graduation losses. How far that slippage would be was an uncertainty.
It turns out there has been none at all. Darien again is atop the polls. Currently third in the Class LL rankings, it is hoping to preserve at least a first-round home game.
“Unfortunately for us they have the greater motivation because they have to win to get in,” Blue Wave coach Rob Trifone said. “If I’m New Canaan I’ve got all the motivation in the world. Our motivation is it’s a big rivalry, as it is every year, and home field advantage in the states.”
If nothing else, the game will provide a needed test for the Blue Wave, who have not faced a postseason contender in over a month.
“We had a hard time with the back end of our schedule,” Trifone said. “The Trumbulls and the Wiltons and the Wardes are solid teams, but out kids are so tuned in to a challenge. St. Joe’s, Staples and New Canaan. That’s what they want. That’s the relief because practice has been high energy, with a great tempo.”
The win over the Cadets, two weeks after they had defeated New Canaan, elevated the Blue Wave back into the top spot. Their defense, led by linebacker Connor Fay and Bruce Ferguson in the secondary, has remained a strength, allowing 61 points. The offense, with Cooper Hancock at quarterback, has been proficient.
“We’ve got to try and control the ball and run at them,” Marinelli said. “Not too many people have done that. They’re not as explosive as they’ve been on offense but they’re explosive enough where you’ve got to really make sure that you read your keys because they are very well skilled. And their skill people are what really make them run.”
Similarly, the Rams have a number of weapons, led by quarterback Drew Pyne and receiver Quintin O’Connell, who has also been effective running the ball. There haven’t been many tests since the loss to the Cardinals, but the Rams used the time to get their groove back and have outscored opponents, 166-21.
“We have to control O’Connell,” Trifone said. “I don’t think any defense is capable of shutting that kid down. He’s too damn good. And their other receivers, (Wyatt) Wilson and (Zach) LaPolice, are good. They’ve got quite a few very good receivers.”
New Canaan won last year, 27-0, ending the Blue Wave’s 34-game winning streak. Darien played without three suspended starters.
Trifone agreed with Marinelli in analyzing the Rams at this point of the season.
“I think the losses that New Canaan had this year have made them a better team,” Trifone said. “Sometimes it takes that kind of thing to shake up a team. Us included. You go back to last year. We lost the Turkey Bowl. Our kids were angry and didn’t want that to happen again. Maybe that’s what we needed.”
The numerous storylines add to what has been the state’s biggest rivalry.
“It’s a game that both Darien and New Canaan look forward to every year,” Marinelli said. “It’s the game. You have two very proud communities and two very proud programs. No matter who wins or loses you’re guaranteed to see a good game.”