A year ago at this time, the excitement of a new football season had the FCIAC in its annual blaze. And because of an extra week on the schedule, a highly anticipated opening series of games with the SCC made Labor Day seem like the 4th of July, fireworks ready to detonate.
Now, as the holiday weekend and unofficial end of summer come to a close, the feeling is one of malaise and restlessness. The CIAC has imposed a regular-season limit of 10 games, and because the FCIAC was insistent on holding what will be its 50th league championship, the schedule has been reduced by another contest.
Only Westhill and Bridgeport Central will open the year with the rest of the state this weekend. For the other 15 teams, there will be an extra seven days of practice and another week to wait before belatedly joining the party. The new schedule is not sitting well with most coaches.
“Outside of the first five days of conditioning and a few double sessions, now we are in no-man’s land,” said Darien’s Rob Trifone, one of the more outspoken critics of the new alignment. “We are having much shorter practices and trying to limit the boredom.”
In a move to limit injuries, in particular addressing the growing concerns of concussions, the CIAC mandated a bye week for each school. Since a league title game would count toward the 10-game limit, both FCIAC coaches and league officials, after a bitterly acrimonious offseason, worked a deal to play a nine-game schedule for the year and maintain the conference final. The FCIAC will be the only conference in the state to hold a a championship.
Essentially tabled was the discussion of how to work within the 10-game constraint going forward. (And the tension has not entirely dissipated; there is still confusion on how the winners in the new two-division format will be determined, by overall or intradivision record.)
The players at 15 teams this weekend are going to feel like uninvited guests to a state-wide party.
“We are doing things a little bit different,” Trifone said. “In most normal years we would have just held our final scrimmage and we’d be opening up this week. They are chomping at the bit. Which they should be. They’ve been training long and hard. They deserve to play a game.”
If Trifone is frustrated, he should take a ride to Trumbull and visit with St. Joseph coach Joe Della Vecchia. The Cadets’ bye falls on what would have been the second week of the schedule, so they will be opening a week later than everyone else, on Sept. 25 at McMahon, just before the start of college basketball practices.
“On the one hand I feel really frustrated because we have from Sept. 4 or 5th without any live action,” said Della Vecchia. “We are not scrimmaging so I don’t know how that helps you. We will learn more as a young team but practicing against your 2s instead of going against another team’s 1s doesn’t help, and when we do start we will be playing a team that will have played once.”
Most coaches have altered customary practice regimens to deal with the additional time before the start of the season.
“We’ve done a lot more individual skill stuff,” Della Vecchia said. “We haven’t done a lot of scheming or our philosophy stuff yet.”
Not everyone is bitter. Fairfield Warde coach Duncan DellaVolpe, with a team that features 34 sophomores, decided to forego spring football for the first time, before the schedule was finalized, and instead use the time to start fall conditioning a week earlier. Even though the opening bye was then added, DellaVolpe is at ease with his decision.
“It’s not a real big deal for us,” DellaVolpe said. “It’s not a negative thing. I wish we were still opening on the 11th, but the way the schedule worked out is nice because we have such a young team. Even with a veteran team it would be great to get the extra week in as well. I just don’t think you have enough time to prepare.”
Coaches and league officials, with feelings still raw from two months of tense talks over the winter and spring, no doubt will be monitoring the effect of this year’s schedule before sitting down to come up with a final solution. A majority of the coaches, while recognizing the historic value of the conference final, feel, like the rest of the state, that the CIAC’s guidelines have left the league with no wiggle room and that it is unfair for 15 teams to be denied an extra game. That feeling will become crystallized as the season plays out if the league decides division champions solely on what would be seven intradivision games.
Many league administrators would like to exhaust all options before giving up what is both a time-honored tradition and huge revenue generator.
For now, most everyone will have to just sit and wait.
“I think the FCIAC final is a wonderful tradition and 15 teams will sacrifice and play nine games and the league can have its 50th game and go out with a bang,” said Trifone, whose team is the defending champion. “The two teams that make it, god bless them, and next year we go to a 10-game schedule. I don’t think anyone realized what it is like to sit out a month before going through it. Now that I’m living it, I’m not doing this again.”