FAIRFIELD — Fairfield Warde coach Duncan DellaVolpe had no doubt Joe Gjinaj, his breakout star last fall, was locked in for the start of his final season. DellaVolpe had witnessed Gjinaj, a high-motored defensive end, putting in tireless work during the offseason.
Then there was the view DellaVolpe saw outside his window last Wednesday, 48 hours before the Mustangs’ first conditioning session.
“He was in full practice gear and he’s tackling his father in the driveway,” DellaVolpe said with a chuckle. “He’s getting ready to go I guess. That’s the kind of kid he has been and the type of kid we like to have here.”
Gjinaj came through for his neighbor and the Mustangs after being moved from linebacker prior to last season. Gjinaj finished with 10.5 sacks, the fourth most in the FCIAC and 10th highest total in the state.
“Coach saw I had a good pash rush,” Gjinaj said. “I was getting in the backfield a lot. We switched our defense and it worked out great for me. I played pretty well at defensive end and I hope I can do the same this year.”
Gjinaj was a relative unknown before opening day but by Thanksgiving opponents were game-planning to contain him. He set the tone with two sacks in an opening win over Stamford and later made the difference in a 32-29 victory over McMahon, when he had three sacks and 11 tackles.
“TFLs, sacks, that’s what I am looking for,” said Gjinaj, referring to tackles for a loss. “Playing assignment football. If the ball comes my way I’ve got to make the tackle.”
Gjinaj is just one of the reasons for the Mustangs’ late-August optimism. They finished 5-5 a year ago. Their most impressive performance might have been a 17-0 loss to Darien, the eventual Class LL champion and No. 1 team in the state. There were 10-point losses to Wilton and Staples the players and coaches feel prevented them from having a more memorable season.
“We were without a doubt disappointed with our performance against Wilton,” DellaVolpe said. “They did a great job against us. The Staples game we felt we had a good shot at the end and a couple of mistakes took that away. We played well against Darien, we just didn’t score. If we cleaned some things up we might have had two more wins last year. This year it’s the same deal. You’ve got to get off to a quick start and you’ve got to win those 50-50 games and steal one or two and then something happens.”
The schedule is the same as a year ago, with the exception being a flip in venues. That means the Mustangs are going to have to be road warriors: four of their first five games are away from home. And because an unexpected issue will delay the completion of installing new turf on their field until late September, the lone scheduled home game, against St. Joseph in week two, will be moved to Fairfield Ludlowe.
“We’re working hard thinking about Stamford every day, Gjinaj said. “First game. First win. That’s what sets the tone.”
About half of the team’s starters are back. Joey Gulbin, a junior with a lot of promise, will take over at quarterback.
“It’s the first time in a while we project having someone to start for two years,” DellaVolpe said.
Gjinaj has the highest profile of the returning players, and he is prepared to play a bigger role on and off the field.
“Going into last season I was running every single day, twice a day, and lifting every single day,” Gjinaj said. “It was a grind last offseason. This offseason it was the same thing. I got a lot bigger and stronger and faster. Our team has been grinding this year. A lot of kids are looking good.”
It is evident the rest of the team feeds off Gjinaj’s energy, which is why he planned on talking to his teammates before the end of Friday’s conditioning session.
“I want to give a speech about focus,” Gjinaj said. “This year I want our team to be really focused in practice. No screwing around, talking. When coach is speaking I want everyone to look at coach in the eyes. The coaches really know what they are talking about. We have good coaches.”
DellaVolpe said he was impressed with Gjinaj’s attitude and the tone he sets.
“He’s all in, which is all that we can ask for,” DellaVolpe said. “He’s always in the gym, gets good grades, is the first to volunteer when we do community things. They can’t miss the work that he puts in. That’s key for the younger kids to follow. And he wants to play at the next level, and he will. It’s very important for him to be a good leader.”
Gjinaj’s brother, Kris, graduated last year and is now a defensive back at St. Lawrence. Gjinaj, who is 6-foot and 210 pounds, is starting to get looks from schools like Fordham and Holy Cross.
“I need to start contacting other schools but I’ve been more focused on my team,” Gjinaj said. “I hope to do well this year. I don’t want to say anything right now but I hope to have a huge season.”