The FCIAC continues to be a polarized football world, with four schools in annual races for state titles, a group in a constant search for traction and a large middle class that occasionally offers up a playoff contender.
Greenwich, St. Joseph, New Canaan and Darien all made it to the CIAC tournaments last season. Greenwich (Class LL) and St. Joseph (Class M) won championships — the Cardinals finished unbeaten and the No. 1 team in the state — while the Rams made it to the finals.
New Canaan slips down to and St. Joseph up to what is now a loaded Class L.
I found ordering the top teams more difficult this year than ever before, in large part because there has been more turnover than usual. I eventually decided on St. Joseph as my No. 1 because it has on defense six starters back on what should be a loaded front seven. Of last year’s playoff teams, only New Canaan with Drew Pyne has a returning quarterback. My order of the top four is in fact based on my familiarity with personnel.
As for the next half dozen, forget it. All guesswork. Ridgefield and Norwalk have the most back. Since players unfortunately take these previews so literally — haven’t you guys figured out already how lacking us sportswriters are when it comes to preseason picks — it would have been wiser to list them alphabetically. But where is the fun?
1. St. Joseph
The Cadets get the nod as the best of the power four by virtue of their front seven, which should be one of the most dominant units in the state, led by Jermaine Williams and Mike Morrissey on the line. Running back Jaden Shirden and wide receiver Will Diamantis are playmakers. The one unknown is cornerback turned quarterback Jack Wallace. He is not the pocket passer David Summers was, but he doesn’t have to be. The Cadets could win a third straight title in a different class.
2. New Canaan
The Rams are the only one of the top teams in the conference with a returning quarterback, and Drew Pyne is one of the best in the state. He had a great offseason in camps and is playing a more vocal leadership role. New Canaan should be strong on defense, led by Matt Rigione on the line. The offense will mostly come by committee, with Zach LaPolice and Luke Morton at receiver. One concern is injuries. Top lineman David Siegel is lost for the year and running back/defensive back Drew Guida could miss half the season or more with a fractured collarbone.
The Blue Wave is another state playoff contender with a defense that at this point seems to be ahead of the offense. The secondary should be outstanding, while linebackers Sam Wilson and JH Slonieski are always around the ball. Will Bothwell will provide the pass rush. Increased size on the offensive line will be a noticeable difference and Peter Graham will have no difficulty taking over as starting quarterback. Will Kirby is the featured running back and a stable of receivers is led by Jackson Peters, Austin Dehmel and Michael Minicus.
Am I dropping the defending Class LL champion and No. 1 team in the state too low? Possibly. It is just that the Cardinals lost more personnel than the three teams I have ranked higher. With so many players in the program the new starters are more unknowns than questions marks. Everyone is waiting to see receiver AJ Barber after his state final performance, and there are great running backs in Spencer Hartley, Jack Warren and Hunter Clark. Callum Abernethy leads a rebuilt offensive line, Will Montesi will make an impact at tight end and Eddy Iuteri headlines a defense that was hit hard by graduation. The biggest change: James Ronello replaces Gavin Muir at quarterback. Or Anthony Morello taking over as head coach for John Marinelli, who is now an assistant at the University of Arizona?
The Tigers will be more formidable than last season, but a difficult schedule may be a factor improving on a 6-4 mark. The offensive line will be one of the biggest in the league, giving quarterback Owen Matthews more time and providing a new cast of running backs space to make plays. The defense should also be strong, led by Reid Englert on the line and Alex Hanna in the secondary. Trying to figure out the fifth through 10th teams is a thankless task. The edge now goes to the Tigers.
Keep An Eye On
Coach Sean Ireland has felt this group of players was built to peak this year. Two-way lineman Sam Papp and quarterback Kyle Gordon are back to lead the way. A veteran offensive line will be the Bears’ strength. Keep an eye on receiver AJ Robinson to make an impact. Norwalk would be a top-three team in a number of leagues.
The Hatters made it into the “also receiving votes” category in the first state poll, a testament to the respect for the quick rebuilding job by coach Augie Tieri in his second year. I don’t expect Danbury to finish that high, but there is always one school that finishes above some established programs. The Hatters are my pick, led by defensive terror Jah Joyner. Kile Jackson and Jordan Agosto lead the offensive line. Malachi Hopkins is a playmaker. We get a preview of how far the Hatters have come Saturday at Greenwich.
It is so difficult at this point picking between the teams in this section, and the hardest was whether to put Trumbull or Staples higher. I get the feeling coach Marce Petroccio feels he is holding a stronger hand than people think. I can see the Eagles being a headache with their running game, a new but big line paving the way for a healthy Mileeq Green. Receiver Kyle Atherton was one of the league’s most underrated players a year ago. Of course, the Eagles also have the state’s hardest schedule.
The Wreckers’ defense was fun to watch last year, but many of the key players have graduated. The offensive line is big, but are there enough playmakers? One is Jake Thaw, the quarterback last year, who will get the ball in space with Jackson Zager now calling the signals. We will see how this change plays out. And new coach Adam Behrends’ system is just an unknown to us at this point.
The Warriors are always one of the most difficult teams to handicap and one of the easiest to underestimate. They are a constantly hard-nosed group that have succumbed late in games due to a lack of depth. They lost a big senior class and — surprise — are going to open up the offense. Matt Gulbin is one of the state’s best linemen. Running back Drew Phillips and receiver Kyle Hyzy are dangerous with the ball.
11. Fairfield Ludlowe
What to make of the Falcons, the surprise team of a year ago with a 7-3 mark? A strong senior class and an innovative offense made them one of the most entertaining teams to watch. But graduation took all but a handful of starters. The style will be the same, but the names are different and the schedule much more difficult. Quinn Pavoz is the new quarterback and running back James Bourque will be a featured part of the offense.
12. Fairfield Warde
The Mustangs have hovered around the .500 mark the past few seasons. They have a returning quarterback in Joey Gulbin. Connor Burt figures to be his favorite target. There is better depth than in recent seasons. Getting over .500 after a 4-6 finish will likely depend on the outcome of games against Wilton, Staples and city rival Fairfield Ludlowe.
Rest Of The Pack
The Hilltoppers were 0-10 but have a number of starters back, a cause for optimism. Rafael Garcia is the new quarterback and Jean Desir will be the top receiver.
Jeff Queiroga begins his second season with the Senators, hoping to improve on a 2-8 mark. He has a lot of size to cause matchup problems, most notably 240-pound fullback Jermayne Daniels, who with a head of steam will be tough to take down. Patrick Coulter provides experience at quarterback.
Coach Jamar Greene seems to be forced to ride the yo-yo each offseason; will he be back or not. And each fall Greene, about to enter his seventh season, returns. Another constant: the Black Knights seem to have several dangerous players with the ball. This year they are quarterback Isaiah Johnson and running back Alain Paul.
Trinity Catholic/Wright Tech
After months of being undermined by their own school administration, the Crusaders, now a co-op program, have been able to focus on football. New coach Thomas Broschardt has worked hard to keep the atmosphere upbeat. Leading the way on the field will be wide receiver/defensive backs Tahj Morgan and Evan Field.
A difficult schedule will be an impediment for coach Joey DeVellis’ second season. Sam Edouard is a stopper at linebacker, while Anthony Bivona and Matt O’Connor are in contention for the starting quarterback spot.