FCIAC

Football 2015: A Year And One Week Later, Darien And New Canaan Again Teams To Beat

Matt Cognetta will have an increased role in New Canaan's offense. (Photo: Darien Athletic Foundation)

Matt Cognetta will have an increased role in New Canaan’s offense. (Photo: Darien Athletic Foundation)

Welcome to the start of a new FCIAC basketball, er, football season.

OK, taking shots at the league for starting its year a week later than the rest of the state is both too easy a target and has been done countless times before. We just get to do it seven days after everyone else.

Lets wrap it up and put it behind us: the FCIAC erred greatly by forcing 14 schools — Bridgeport Central gets its own exemption — to play just nine games, one less than the CIAC mandates, to maintain what will be the league’s 50th championship game. Wrong move, right reason. The final has a heralded tradition, and if you are going to have a conference it is mindless in theory not to have a conference title. But the state has left no wiggle room, and the FCIAC spent too much of the offseason trying to put square pegs into round holes.

Coaches and players, except for those at Central and Westhill, which opened last week, are tired of sitting around. And pity poor St. Joseph, which drew an opening bye and will actually be opening right around the start of the basketball preseason.

Tired of well-worn refrains? Try this one: Darien and New Canaan, in different divisions now after the departure of Bassick and Harding, which means no more points system, are again the favorites to play for the second straight year in the championship game. In some respects the rivals mirror one another. Each lost a combined All-Star team’s worth of talent. And each has both a strong nucleus back bolstered by some unknown names you will know by heart in about a month.

To quote Pink Floyd, welcome to the machine(s).

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Can anyone break through and spoil the neighboring party on Thanksgiving? Staples is probably not getting the attention it deserves, perhaps because it has merely been good for a couple of years. And Greenwich is the wild card, in large part because everyone thinks new coach John Marinelli is going to turn the program into Oregon East High School. And he just might.

After that is probably the biggest group of unknowns in recent memory. Everyone says St. Joseph is going to take a tumble after getting decimated by graduation losses, but if so just how far? How good are Norwalk? McMahon? Danbury? Are they 4-, 5-, 6- or 7-win teams? The middle half of the league is almost impossible to rank right now.

The good news is starting Friday we will finally have a body of work to go by.

On with the show.

Timmy Graham gives Darien one of the state's best quarterbacks. (Photo: Darien Athletic Foundation)

Timmy Graham gives Darien one of the state’s best quarterbacks. (Photo: Darien Athletic Foundation)

Preseason Top 5

1. New Canaan. There are so many similarities between the Rams and Darien in a macro sense that I have no idea how to rank one over the other. Since 1A and 1B would seem like too much of a copout, given the Rams won the most recent game between the two they get the nod for the top spot.

New Canaan was one of the outposts for the most preseason talk after offensive coordinator John Marinelli departed to take over at Greenwich, sending ripples throughout the league. Marinelli was the offensive coordinator for much of the state’s most blistering attack for a decade.

The Rams will be fine. Michael Collins is primed for even more success than a year ago, when he threw for 2,624 yards and 32 touchdowns. Left tackle Lucas Niang is being coveted by top 5 college programs, while Gardner Read and Will Conley are also anchors to the line. Kyle Smith will have no problem adapting to the role of go-to receiver, while there will be a committee of sure-handed support, including kicker Peter Swindell. The lone question is will any stretch the field consistently? Keep an eye out for Andrew DeFranco.

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Matt Cognetta will lead the running game, while twin brother Michael is a top defensive back and part of what should again be a sturdy defense, though the loss of linebacker Cass Knox is a huge blow.

New Canaan makes up for in ability what it lacks in experience. It also recalls two straight Thanksgiving losses. That will provide extra motivation.

2. Darien. How hard is it not to put the Blue Wave in the top spot? Very. Like probably-should-have-flipped-a-coin very.

There is nothing not to like about Darien. Timmy Graham is back and one of the state’s top quarterbacks, a cool presence in the pocket. There are playmakers all over the field, starting with Hudson Hamill and Shelby Grant. Colin Minicus is an outstanding receiver. There might not be a better pair of tackles than 315-pound Andrew Steuber and Spencer Stovall, weighing in at 265 pounds.

The secondary will be the envy of the state. All four starters are back, including Hamill, Tyler Grant and coach Rob Trifone’s twin sons, Christian and Bobby, the latter having made the game-saving end zone interception in the Turkey Bowl against New Canaan.

All this and we haven’t even gotten around yet to Mark Evanchick, who is coming off a 25-sack season, leaving him 17 shy of the state record. With his three linemates departed, the temptation for opposing coaches might be to quadruple-team him, but Justin Plank, Cord Fox and Quinlin Fay are going to be just fine.

The Blue Wave are also not feeling too complacent after the way the final game ended a year ago. The goal this year is to run the table. Moving up to Class LL means avoiding New Canaan but a tougher road. Fortunately they have the personnel to do it.

Jackson Ward and Staples are expecting to be enjoying many celebrations this fall.

Jackson Ward and Staples are expecting to be enjoying many celebrations this fall.

3. Staples. A few twists and turns here and there and the Wreckers might have been playing in the state tournament a year ago. Instead there were a bunch of near-misses, offset by an impressive Thanksgiving win over Greenwich that knocked the Cardinals out of the postseason and should have some carryover effect for Staples.

Staples should run the ball as well as most teams in the league, with Ethan Burger and Connor Adrian taking turns behind a seasoned offensive line led by Harvard-bound Jackson Ward. Andrew Speed takes over at quarterback, and he will have an inviting target in Ryan Fitton, an All-State punter.

Evan Gilland and Jack Griffin are back on defense, and the Wreckers could have the best special teams in the area, with Paul Tricarico back as kicker.

Circle Nov. 13 on your calendar. It says here Staples vs. Darien for the division title.

4. Greenwich. Has any team in Connecticut generated more preseason buzz than the Cardinals? First the respected Rich Albonizio was forced to resign under acrimonious circumstances and then the 29-year-old Marinelli was named to take over. Visions of weekly 50-point outbursts were dancing among the Cardinal Stadium regulars.

The publicity in large part is generated by what could happen. A young offensive innovator surrounded by players willing to learn how to play the real life version of Madden-ball. But will it happen this year?

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It is hard to tell. There are weapons like tight end Scooter Harrington and running back Luke Bienstock, whose breakout game last year was against New Canaan when Austin Longi was injured. Ian Bannon and Kevin Woodring are two certainties on the offensive line and will be among the stoppers on defense. What is uncertain is who will play quarterback, Nic Smoller or Frank Alfano, and depth at receiver.

The Cardinals may be the league’s most-watched team initially. They will be tested right away with Trinity Catholic and Darien off the bat. It should be a fun ride.

Six years ago John Marinelli was a young assistant on his father Lou's staff at New Canaan. Now he is the new coach at Greenwich. (Photo: Chris Cody)

Six years ago John Marinelli was a young assistant on his father Lou’s staff at New Canaan. Now he is the new coach at Greenwich. (Photo: Chris Cody)

5. Trinity Catholic. The Crusaders have been getting a lot of preseason hype and intriguingly much of it has come from writers upstate, who don’t see them on a regular basis and are predicting an appearance in the Class S playoffs.

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It is easy to see why. Anthony Lombardi is a strong-armed quarterback ready to build on his junior season. He has inviting targets in a pair of transfers, Izaiah Sanders and JonMichael Bivona, whose versatility will make him one of the top rushers as well. The offensive line struggled at times last year, but it is back intact and coach Donny Panapada considers it a strength.

The loss of Thomas Costigan, particularly on defense, is considerable, but Nick Granata is ready to step up as a leader of the defense. Nick Melia is a sophomore ready for a breakout season.

We will learn a lot about Trinity when it hosts Greenwich on Friday. A difficult game with Norwalk is up next, but if the Crusaders can get a split they will likely be favored in their remaining seven games.

Keep An Eye On

Norwalk. The Bears and Trinity have received the most early attention as league sleepers. Sean Ireland is back as coach after a one-year sabbatical, and he has one of the best offensive linemen in junior James Makszin. Junior Krishtjan Frcokaj takes over at quarterback, and the Bears should have one of the more potent attacks, with Eddie O’Hara, Brendan Brown, Dakari Eason and Deandre Russell. Norwalk will try to wear teams down shuffling in running backs.

The defense has the potential to be strong. A season-ending upset of McMahon seems to have shaped the mood for this season. The schedule isn’t easy but Norwalk should be an entertaining follow.

Cory Babineau returns at quarterback for St. Joseph. (Photo: Gregory Vasil)

Cory Babineau returns at quarterback for St. Joseph. (Photo: Gregory Vasil)

St. Joseph. Hog-watchers seem to feel the sky is falling. Losing Mufasha Abdul-Basir, Lars Pedersen and Troy Vazzano from a state championship team will cause panic from buyers.

The general consensus is the Cadets are going to take a fall, but it won’t be precipitous because of the program’s tradition. It is very hard to tell what to make of the team at this point, and we are going to have to wait an extra week to find out.

Givens are linebacker Cam Ryan and linemen Jack Ganser and Mike Jones. Cory Babineau, who played well at the end of the season, is back at quarterback and Kevin Trefz will likely be his favorite target.

There is a lot to like and a lot to question. And for the Cadets, a lot of waiting.

Danbury. The Hatters were the most improved team a year ago, winning eight games behind first-year coach Mark Ecke. However the ripples were felt when Ecke unexpectedly stepped down this summer to take a full-time teaching job at Capital Prep and Alex Trasacco, a long-time assistant, has taken over.

Danbury lost several key starters but has one of the league’s most versatile stars in Pierre Moudourou, a deep-ball threat and outstanding linebacker. Judah James and Tyren McCrea are a pair of key two-way players. The schedule-makers did the Hatters no favors; they will play Darien and New Canaan back to back. There is an opener Friday with Staples. Danbury may remain strong but not get the same results in the standings.

Brien McMahon. The Senators are another in a line of teams difficult to get a read on, but given their recent run of strong play it would be foolish to discount them.

Coach A.J. Albano, who preaches running and defense, lost his three top backs. Theo Wilson, an outstanding blocker, is back, and Jordan Smith will be counted on to make up some of the lost yards. Quarterback Jason Hall has the capability to be a threat out of the option. Dylan Finn will be one of the defensive leaders at linebacker.

The Senators lost a lot but have been a next-man-up team, replacing stars with unheralded players who have become stars. Albano is hoping the trend continues.

Rest Of The Pack

Bridgeport Central. The Hilltoppers got off to a slow start, losing to Westhill in the only FCIAC game of the week. Mike Farrell, a former assistant at the school, takes over. Dantae Brown and Delvon Williams will be counted on to lead the ground game.

Fairfield Ludlowe. The Falcons were erratic a year ago but played almost everyone tough. Chris Howell will be getting most of the carries, and he will run behind an offensive line led by Billy Stapleton. Mitch Wykoff is a top two-way player at receiver and defensive back.

Fairfield Warde. Poor Duncan DellaVolpe. Last year the coach had the most talent he’s had to work with at the school, but one of the league’s most difficult schedules limited the Mustangs to six wins. This year the list of opponents is slightly more accommodating, but graduation losses were considerable. Conor Gallagher is a strong two-way presence at running back and linebacker, and Bryan Azarian is a promising junior running back.

Ridgefield. The Tigers’ 2-9 mark last season was one of the more stunning events of the conference season. It had been 15 years since the Tiger Hollow gang finished below .500. Coach Kevin Callahan will miss this year after a DUI arrest and assistant Joe Arcieri, the interim leader, has been preaching optimism. It has caught on with his players, spurred to prove last year a blip. For the second year in a row the team lost a top running back, this time Jackson Turek, to a season-ending injury before opening day. The offensive line, with Leo Griffazzi and Ryan Goff, will be strong, while A.J. Fabbri and Dante Cobelli are a pair of rugged linebackers.

Stamford. The Black Knights are an ornery bunch after seeing the transfer of several impact players. They went 7-4 a year ago with a high-octane offense, but many of the players responsible have moved on. Captains Tyequan Bonaparte, Chris Desir, George Nikolopolous, and Ryan Holbrook will provide the needed leadership and skill, while Ben Joseph should be one of the breakout players on defense.

Trumbull. The Eagles finished just 4-7 a year ago and will see a big turnover in personnel. Johnny McElroy provides experience at quarterback, with Stephen Nagy likely to be a favored target. Corey Haslam is a top lineman, while junior linebacker Ryan Kelly is ready to make an impact.

Westhill. Blake Newcomer threw for two touchdowns and Aaron Pettiford scored a pair as the Vikings opened with a win over Central. Carl Gedeon and Dan Hogan give Westhill a pair of strong receivers. Much has been made of the team’s new uniforms, but the goal isn’t just to look good but play well in them. The Vikings get a bye this week before a good litmus test with Trumbull.

Wilton. Two things have been consistent with the Warriors the past few years. No team has played harder, but effort has been offset by lack of depth. Quite simply Wilton was often worn down in the second half of games. There is good young talent headed up the pipeline, and returning starters like quarterback R.J. Romeo, lineman Brennen Ryan and defensive back Matt D’Elisa.

Starting 11

QB Michael Collins, New Canaan

DE Mark Evanchick, Darien

QB Timmy Graham, Darien

TE Scooter Harrington, Greenwich

QB Anthony Lombardi, Trinity Catholic

WR Pierre Moudourou, Danbury

OL Lucas Niang, New Canaan

LB Cam Ryan, St. Joseph

WR Kyle Smith, New Canaan

OL Andrew Steuber, Darien

OL Jackson Ward, Staples