WEST HAVEN — It was a humid late August morning, and Rob Trifone was taking a break from practice, trying to give a reporter an assessment of his Darien football team, one he admittedly did not yet quite have a feel for. He knew both the offensive and defensive lines would be strengths.
Everything else? Reason for optimism, but on the cautious side.
Fast forward a little over three months, with the temperature more frigid and Trifone again off to the side from his players. If Trifone’s late-summer words were the preface, his late-fall thoughts following a decisive 28-7 win over Ridgefield on Saturday for a second straight Class LL title and undefeated season were the afterword.
“It feels awesome,” Trifone said with a smile. “Awesome. How could it not feel awesome? It’s as satisfying as it gets.”
With its 25th straight win, Darien will again be voted the No. 1 team in the state. And except for three turnovers that kept the score close early, the Blue Wave in 48 minutes exhibited all the attributes that allowed them to go unbeaten through 13 games this season. The lines, as Trifone predicted, dominated. The players he felt had potential saw it realized. And contributions came from all over the field, with a different player getting a turn in the spotlight. This time it was Tim Herget, who caught two touchdowns passes and had a pair of interceptions, the first in his own end zone three plays after Ridgefield was trying to answer a Darien touchdown on the opening drive.
“It’s a team effort but the fact that a person steps up is influenced by what everyone else does,” Herget said, in typical selfless team fashion. “I was just out there playing.”
Against an opponent with as many influential offensive players as any in the state, Darien gave up 279 yards but just one touchdown. The Blue Wave held the Tigers (10-3) to just two yards rushing. They bent, occasionally giving up the big play. But the pass rush came up with eight sacks, four by Quinn Fay, who this postseason gave the type of Lawrence Taylor impression that no doubt earned him a thumbs-up from his teammate of a year ago, Mark Evanchick, the state’s career sack leader.
“The defense once again kept us in the game,” Trifone said. “If it wasn’t for the defense playing lights-out I think it is a much closer game.”
Both the offensive and defensive lines were extraordinary. On the Blue Wave’s first scoring pass, quarterback Brian Peters, who finished with three, had enough time to watch a couple of Snapchat stories before finding Finlay Collins on a 14-yard play that ended their opening possession.
A predicted shootout seemed more certain after Ridgefield’s first play, a 62-yard pass from quarterback Drew Fowler to Chris Longo. Then came Herget’s interception.
Ridgefield would finish with just 16 more yards until its final possession of the half. But Darien could not find any comfort room, hurt by its own mistakes and a strong showing by the Tigers’ defense, until it went to a ground attack, led by Collins (25 carries, 166 yards), to set up Peters’ 12-yard pass to Herget with 46 seconds left before the break for a 14-0 lead.
“Our defense came out strong and helped our offense,” said Andrew Stueber, the two-way lineman whose next game will be at Michigan. “We got great position on the field. Both lines played great. We established a running game and that was a key. Coach Trifone always says it starts up front. We tried to establish a running game, tried to put pressure on the quarterback and we did both of those.”
Fowler moved Ridgefield to start the second half, including a 28-yard pass to Longo, but then was intercepted again by Herget at the Darien 12. Five plays later Herget took a short pass and juked his way to a 65-yard touchdown that made the score 21-0.
With the luxury of running the ball removed, Fowler spent the rest of the day dodging defenders. Nick Green read a shot pass play and turned an interception into a 61-yard score for the Blue Wave’s final point.
“With their pass rush you have to get the ball out early if you’re going to get it out at all,” Ridgefield coach Kevin Callahan said. “You could see it in the way they play defense, they played everything within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. They were trying to take away the quick stuff. The running game, obviously there was not much there. If you are going to throw the ball over 10 yards you need time and they don’t give you time, so their gameplan was excellent. We are proud to be here but we ran up against a great team that is very deserving of winning back to back championships.”
History will treat the Tigers kindly: they came back twice against top SCC opponents in the earlier rounds to advance to the final, and one of their other losses was to New Canaan, which won its fourth straight state title on Saturday and will likely finish as the No. 2 team in the state.
Ridgefield scored 21 points against the Rams, their season low before Saturday.
“We made some mistakes early and bounced back in the second half and put up points on the board,” Collins said. “They are a very high-powered offense so we were fortunate to play as well as we did.”
When the fans got upset last month because Darien only had four players named to the All-FCIAC team, they were unaware that the glass was not half-empty but half-full, and maybe also out of focus. They were missing out on what made this year’s Blue Wave team special, and why a group of mostly unknown individuals were able to navigate the obstacle course to another state title, even earning notoriety in the process.
Collins put the experience into perspective as he watched his teammates celebrate around him.
“I don’t think we would have been this successful if we didn’t come together as a group,” Collins said. “It’s really amazing. Maybe it is not the greatest team talent wise, but as a team it’s one of the best ever. Everyone stepped up this year. We had a lot of two-way players. A lot of players unproven coming into the year who played well today, played well all year.”