It has been just over a year since Greenwich coach John Marinelli last stood on a sideline staring at a sea of royal blue. The Cardinals qualified for the Class LL Tournament and drew Darien in the first round. The Blue Wave came away with a 29-3 win, the first step toward a second straight state title.
As the teams get ready to meet again, this time on Saturday for the championship, Marinelli said he is back in a personal Groundhog Day.
“I hate playing Darien,” Marinelli said with a laugh. “I feel like I played them last week.”
Starting in 2013, when he was New Canaan’s offensive coordinator, this will be the eighth time Marinelli has gone up against the Blue Wave in five seasons.
Last year Darien was an overwhelming favorite. Now the teams are more evenly matched, though Blue Wave coach Rob Trifone cast himself in the role of underdog.
“I’ve watched tape on just about everyone in the top 10 except for Ansonia, and clearly Greenwich is the best team in the state,” Trifone said. “They’ve got no weaknesses. Great on offense, great on defense, solid special teams, skill players all over the place. It’s going to be a Herculean task to try and play with them, but obviously our boys are up for the challenge and you’ve seen that in our two playoff games. We’re preparing like we do for any other game. We are going to go out there and give it our best.”
Despite their different recent histories — this is the Cardinals’ first trip to the final in a decade — the storylines this fall are remarkably similar. Darien graduated a number of starters but was ranked No. 2 in the opening state poll in large part because of reputation. That proved to be a smart bet. The names changed but the results have been the same for Darien (11-1). There was uncertainty at many positions, most notably quarterback, but Jack Joyce has been solid and provided an added element with his mobility. And the defense has dominated.
The Cardinals were expected to be similar to a year ago, but the accelerated development by a number of non-senior starters and unexpected depth helped them go 12-0 and contend for a title a little faster than planned.
“In August with all the previews coming out, I wasn’t sure because the maturity wasn’t there,” Marinelli said. “Yes we matured faster than I thought, especially on the offensive and defensive lines, and that’s been our staple. We’ve been able to if not dominate at the line of scrimmage, play well up front and give offenses a lot of trouble and give defenses a lot of trouble.”
What has made this anticipated matchup so compelling, besides the proximity of the schools, is that strengths will be matched against strengths. In no one area does either team appear to have a decided advantage.
Marinelli noted some key areas that could determine the outcome. And then some more.
“The matchup of the game is our special teams versus theirs,” he said. “They’ve always been good on special teams and we’ve in past years been good. This year both teams have phenomenal special teams and I think that’s the matchup to watch. They have pretty good return guys and their offensive line versus our D-line. They have pretty much been able to have their way up front. Our guys are excited to go up against their team, and offensively it is their secondary against our receivers. And (Darien’s Connor) Fay versus (Greenwich running back Tysen) Comizio. He’s an All-FCIAC linebacker and he’s really smart and makes a lot of plays. Those are probably the three most intriguing matchups. And Joyce likes to run around. So many games within a game. Both teams come in with a lot of advantages.”
Mike Neary, the Blue Wave’s outstanding two-way lineman, said the rivalry between the teams is maybe a little greater than fans realize.
“In past years it has gotten chippy,” Neary said. “It should be a good game.”
Darien has regrouped since the controversy that started on Thanksgiving Eve with the arrest of three starters. Joyce, who missed the Turkey Bowl against New Canaan, is the only one to return for the playoffs.
Neary said the team has blocked out the distraction, as evidenced by its two playoff wins.
“Coach T has always been saying over the past couple weeks that we have guys in the room who are very good and we can keep going and we can win,” Neary said. “We really bought into that.”
Comizio, who leads the team in rushing, all-purpose yards and touchdowns, said the Cardinals realized their potential at the end of the summer. They have called this season a revenge tour, and already they have defeated New Canaan and Ridgefield, two of the teams they lost to last year. Darien is last on the list.
“We all had high expectations for ourselves coming into the season and we all had that mentality to try and be the best,” Comizio said. “We use that as motivation because we haven’t been in this position for a while at Greenwich High. We have a lot of faith in each other. We’re all excited but we also know how good a team they are. We are going to have to bring it mentally and physically.”
Marinelli said he has mixed feelings about having to play the Blue Wave for the title.
It is bittersweet because I like Rob a lot,” Marinelli said. “He’s been a mentor to me and we talk throughout the season. It’s bittersweet because I want all the FCIAC teams to do well and one FCIAC team has to lose. It’s sweet because the competitor in me, I want to play the best. I want to play Darien and be able to knock off the top dog. To me they are still the No. 1 team in the state.”
Trifone agreed that save subtle differences, there is much commonality between the teams.
“Hopefully that’s what a championship game is all about,” Trifone said. “As much as Johnny or I would like to win by three touchdowns, I’m sure the fans want overtime, triple overtime. One point difference.”