We were well stocked with football storylines before they all got trumped on Tuesday when GameTime’s preseason state writers’ poll was released: the top four schools are all from the FCIAC. The league is currently Connecticut’s hotbed for the sport, with two defending state champions and a finalist.
Can Darien four-peat? Can St. Joseph repeat? Can Greenwich take that one final step? Can New Canaan bounce back after a run of four straight titles was ended?
Speaking of the Rams, you may have heard they have four major Division I commits.
And what about the rest of the league? In more unprecedentation (we need to make that a word just for purposes here given all the firsts), seven of the 17 schools have new coaches. One, Marce Petroccio, is just making the trip from Westport to Trumbull.
There is one downside to such a top-heavy league: New Canaan has moved up to Class LL, which means it is likely there is not enough room for the Rams, Blue Wave and Cardinals to all qualify for the state playoffs.
Here are my guesses how the season will play out.
1. New Canaan
New Canaan or Greenwich? Greenwich or New Canaan? That was the laborious choice this offseason. Back in December until spring I thought go with the Cardinals. A major selling point for the Rams was having four top Division I recruits.
But those players were on the field a year ago and there were still three losses, and elimination in the state semifinals.
So why the Rams? It is because of the remaining 18 starters, strong special teams and quality depth. Most of all it is because of the improved team chemistry that was a liability last fall. And the motivation that comes with tumbling off the top rung.
Quarterback Drew Pyne (Notre Dame) had a great offseason and the offensive line is monstrous with the two Jacks: Stewart (Notre Dame) and Conley (Boston College). Conley may be moved to center this year while Stewart is at left tackle.
Then there is Garrett Braden (Rice), the emotional leader who gave a fiery post-practice speech Monday that cannot be repeated here but is indicative of the Rams’ drive.
Quintin O’Connell is one of the league’s premier receivers and there is depth at the position. The offensive line is tremendous and it will be interesting to see how much the team uses it for the running game. Halfback J.R. Moore could be a key player.
The front seven on defense is solid and the secondary is high on potential.
All the pieces are in place for a championship season. With the Rams moving up to Class LL, Saturday’s game against St. Joseph will be of even greater importance; Greenwich and Darien loom down the road.
The bullseye has been planted squarely on the Rams now. We will see how they deal with it.
Are the Marinellis going to rule the state this autumn? It is certainly possible.
The Cardinals have been on an upward trajectory since John Marinelli took over four years ago, capped off by going 12-0 before dropping the snow bowl with Darien in the Class LL final last December.
There is so much to like about Greenwich and virtually nothing to question. Quarterback Gavin Muir is rewriting the team record books and Tysen Comizio and Jack Warren will again flourish behind a solid offensive line. Muir will be able to spread the ball around to a number of receivers. Keep an eye on Stephen Bennett, who could have a breakout year, and Lance Large.
Because of the numbers Greenwich put up the defense got overlooked but that might have been the greatest strength (though special teams were outstanding). It should again be unyielding.
Mozi Boci is a power rusher who only knows one speed. Jack Feda is a tackling machine at linebacker. Charlie Ducret will lead the secondary.
A couple of visits to Greenwich in the spring and summer made me feel I was at a Division III school, between the numbers (207 at one practice I attended) and the technology. An overlooked asset: one of the best coaching staffs in the state.
Few expected the Cardinals to go as far as they did last year, but the players were more disappointed by the Class LL outcome than buoyed by the trip to get there.
Given the schedule, the Cardinals probably have the best chance in the league to qualify for the state playoffs and try and take that final step.
3. St. Joseph
Several coaches believe if the Cadets defeat New Canaan this weekend they will run the table and finish as the No. 1 team in the state. That is a heavy diet of ifs, especially since Darien looms ahead.
Still, it speaks to the respect for the Cadets, who should continue to possess one of the most explosive offenses. David Summers may top the list in a year when the FCIAC has a lot of strong quarterbacks. His arm strength and accuracy stand out.
Jared Mallozzi has graduated but the receiving position is literally in good hands with Phil Pasmeg, Will Dismantis and Jesse Bike. Underrated is their ability to get yards after the catch.
Jaden Shirden is a breakaway back who makes the passing attack even more effective. The offensive line is supposed to again be of the Hog tough variety.
There are seven starters returning on defense. The Cadets were forced into a few shootouts a year ago and hope to give the offense a greater comfort level. Mike Morrissey is strong up front, Jesse Lawson leads the linebackers and Ace Luzietti lives up to his name in the secondary.
The Cadets will be making the jump to Class M but that should have little impact on their title hopes. They may have the best chance of any FCIAC school to go the distance in December.
If you are not going to pick the defending three-time state champion as the No. 1 team in the preseason, why not double down and put it in the lowest reasonable spot to potentially make yourself look really foolish.
So why Darien fourth? Right now it just has more uncertainty than the teams ranked here ahead of them.
What do we know? Linebacker Connor Fay is one of the state’s premier players, and he will be doing double duty to bolster the offensive line. Starting receivers Tyler Herget and TJ Cornacchia have great hands and make welcome targets. Andrew Lucas and Will Kirby will be fine at running back. The defensive back seven is going to remain solid. Bruce Ferguson is tremendous in the secondary.
What don’t we know? How both lines will hold up. The defensive line was one of the Blue Wave’s biggest strengths during this championship run. Will this refurbished unit come close to that level of dominance?
And how will Cooper Hancock do at quarterback? He edged out Peter Graham for the starting job and there is not a large body of work to go by. That was also the case last year with Jack Joyce and the year before with Brian Peters and those seasons worked out pretty well.
Don’t discount the Blue Wave’s will and drive. There were many long hours spent in the weight room to make sure this isn’t the team that fails to extend the championship streak. The Blue Wave could end up making many of us look bad.
If ranking the top four teams in the league was difficult, trying to order five through 10 was even more arduous. We are going with the Eagles to make the biggest strides of any FCIAC school.
Has any coach looked happier this preseason than Marce Petroccio? He has been invigorated by the move from Staples to his alma mater. And the Trumbull players have welcomed him with fully extended arms.
These are two sides that probably needed reboots. Trumbull was 3-7 a year ago with some ugly losses.
Petroccio has a tradeoff, with some nice pieces but the state’s most difficult schedule. The Eagles must play the four teams I have ranked here ahead of them. Which means improvement may not show up as pronounced in the record.
Colton Nicholas is the best quarterback Petroccio has had to work with in a while. He is strong-armed and deceptively mobile. He will operate behind what should be a solid line. The defense will be much improved, led by Adam Tolk, a relentless linebacker.
Petroccio makes his Trumbull debut Saturday against Greenwich. It will be an early indicator of how far the Eagles have come and how far they have to go.
Keep An Eye On
The Tigers may have been hit by graduation after a season in which frustrating losses to St. Joseph and Greenwich derailed their postseason hopes. Coach Kevin Callahan will not use the turnover in personnel as a safety net in the hunt to playing football in December.
Jackson Mitchell, who got more attention last year for his pass catching ability but can play virtually anywhere on defense, is the Tigers’ headliner, but it will be the contributions from others who will have to step up that will determine the path this season takes.
Players like running back/linebacker Ben Seward. Wide receiver/defensive back Evan Wein. Linemen Nick Hall and Peter Behnke.
Junior Owen Mathews will take over for Greg Gatto at quarterback.
With most teams, this would be considered a rebuilding year. With the Tigers, seven wins is a realistic goal.
It has been a tough offseason for the Wreckers. First they lose Petroccio after a 25-year run in which he remade a perennial doormat into a consistent contender and title winner. Then it took the players four months to learn his replacement would be Phil Treglia, the offensive coordinator at New York state champion Archbishop Stepinac.
The mood of the team can best be described as ornery, and it expects to channel that energy on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons.
Treglia did not inherit an empty cupboard, especially on defense. George Harrington and Blake Runkle will be explosive on the defensive line, while Cole Brockwell and Dean Gendels are a strong one-two punch at linebacker.
Kevin Rabacs will pile up total yardage on offense and special teams. Jake Thaw is the new quarterback. The Wreckers have to play Darien, St. Joseph and Greenwich, plus what now looks like a diet of 50-50 games that will determine their fate.
Our pick for season sleeper is the Bears, who will put inexperience on one side of the scale and a stable of speedy, agile playmakers on the other and see which way it tilts.
The Bears may be a year away from one of their best seasons but they are going to be fun to watch now. Circle the games against Trumbull and Staples; the outcomes will likely dictate the order of finish among the FCIAC middle class.
Two-way lineman Sam Papp seems headed for a big year. Kyle Gordon has a season at quarterback under his belt. Jakari Walker could be in the hunt for the conference rushing title. There are a number of promising sophomores who will get instant seasoning in important roles.
The Bears are one of the more intriguing teams, one coach Sean Ireland thinks could arrive earlier than expected.
New Warriors coach EJ DiNunzio has been peerless when it comes to enthusiasm. DiNunzio bounces around practices like a pinball, a sweat towel adorning his shoulders. Sometimes he is patting a player on the back, sometimes he simulates a defensive back, backing up a few steps during passing drills.
DiNunzio takes over for Bruce Cunningham, who led the team to a 13-7 mark the last two seasons of his tenure. Not many know what to expect from Wilton: DiNunzio was out of the game for two decades before serving last fall as a freshman assistant. What a storyline.
As for the personnel, DiNunzio is going to be counting on quarterback Kyle Phillips, running backs Drew Herlyn, Dean DiNanno and Drew Phillips, as well as a defense led by Mike DiCostanzo and promising sophomore Matt Gulbin.
There is not a great deal of size but considerable heart, and a mystery playbook opponents will soon get a read on. Darien and Wilton are the two schools I wonder most have been picked too low.
10. Fairfield Warde
The Mustangs finished 5-5 a year ago and would like to push themselves into the winning side of the ledger. It is certainly attainable.
Offensive line play will be key, along with the development of junior quarterback Joe Gublin. One given is defensive end Joe Gjinaj, a relentless defensive end who will see plenty of chips, bumps,, double teams and anything else to try and slow him down. It won’t be easy.
If the Mustangs hold serve on games they should win and stay healthy they will get that hop in the standings.
Rest Of The Pack
Bridgeport Central. Derrick Lewis is back in the FCIAC. The former Bassick coach is taking over the Hilltoppers, who are looking to break out of lean times, including a 2-8 mark a year ago.
Central should be strong in the trenches, with size on both lines, led by Ricky Reid. Alfred Flemming is back at quarterback. Lewis said he has been pleased by the positive attitude during training camp.
Danbury. Augie Tieri takes over at Danbury, which has won four games in three years. He has been working tirelessly in the offseason putting his fingerprints on every part of the program.
It will take Tieri time to get the numbers back up, but he will play to his personnel and go heavy with a ground game. The Hatters were hurt by quarterback Diante Vines transferring to Taft. Malachi Hopkins will now run the offense.
While Tieri is not going to sacrifice victories, this year is largely about setting a foundation for Danbury to build on.
Fairfield Ludlowe. Mitch Ross begins his second year with the Falcons still searching for his first win but happy with the direction the program is headed. Increased numbers mean more talent and competition and eventually better results.
Ludlowe has some good skill players, led by wide receiver Aidan Wykoff,, who had 68 receptions for 932 yards and eight touchdowns a year ago.
Colin Wilson takes over at quarterback. The Falcons have a favorable schedule in terms of getting their coach a few wins this year.
Brien McMahon. Jeff Queiroga was elevated to head coach after AJ Albano stepped down. So far Queiroga is ready to maintain the same philosophy of a strong running game and defense, which carried the program well before a recent downturn.
The defense, led by Mike Macari, is the more experienced unit right now, though the Senators have a stable of strong runners, led by Tsai Zoe.
One key loss for McMahon is Justin Forde, the fleet receiver who has decided to focus on track.
Stamford. The Black Knights capped off a 4-6 season with a win over Westhill that earned them the Stamford city title.
“Work in progress” have been the words used by coach Jamar Greene to describe a team that will have a completely rebuilt offense. The defense is also inexperienced, though the Black Knights showed a lot of athleticism in summer 7 on 7 play.
Lenny Garcia is a shifty running back, while Greene is still deciding on a quarterback. A lot of players will be going both ways and the schedule is difficult. The opener against Fairfield Warde will be a good early indicator.
Trinity Catholic. Crusaders coach Donny Panapada has been forced to try to keep his program competitive despite declining numbers at the school, and he is already the lone S representative in a mostly LL league.
Trinity will look for the combination of quarterback Sam Pensiero and receiver Anthony Anderson to ramp up offensive production. Jason Svec is another promising target.
The Crusaders have been on a downswing since qualifying for the state tournament three years ago. That can be attributed to issues with depth. Panapada is hoping a number of solid two-way players will be an equalizer.
Westhill. The Vikings had visions of an eight-win season heading into last November. Then came a humbling loss to Wilton followed by a holiday loss to Stamford.
Defensive coordinator Joey DeVellis was named to succeed Frank Marcucio, who stepped down right before summer. The mood around the Vikings has been buoyant, though DeVellis will have to do some rebuilding because of considerable graduation losses.
DeVellis will count heavily on returning quarterback AJ Laconna. Most of the playmakers are gone. DeVellis has experience putting a strong defense together.
Westhill should know after games against Fairfield Ludlowe, Norwalk and Danbury whether a run at .500 is reasonable.