STAMFORD — In need of the same resilience it tapped during the postseason, the Darien football team was able to summon an unyielding and relentless posture for a much shorter stretch during today’s Class LL final.
After converting field goals on two previous fourth-quarter possessions, Greenwich got the ball back deep in its own territory with just over two minutes remaining, trailing, 24-22.
This time the Blue Wave defense, their dominant and most consistent unit, came up with the stop. That set up a late touchdown by Mitchell Pryor that led to a 31-22 win at Boyle Stadium and the Blue Wave’s third straight state title in a memorable game played in a steady snow.
“As you know, Greenwich is one heck of a football team with a lot of weapons,” Darien coach Rob Trifone said. “During that last series we had a lot of our seniors step up and make plays when they needed to. I’m awful proud of them.”
The Blue Wave (12-1) were voted No. 2 in the preseason poll and will finish at least that high. They could end up, like last year, in the top spot, depending on the outcome of Monday’s Class S championship and what will be a difficult evaluation by the state’s writers before submitting their ballots.
Darien, taking advantage of an early mistake, grabbed a quick 14-0 lead. But a goal-line stand on the final play of the first half set the stage for the Cardinals’ defense, which emerged as one of the best in the state, to hold the Blue Wave to a lone field goal over the final two quarters until the final seconds.
“They executed early and that was the experience of them coming out and the inexperience of us,” said John Marinelli, who in his third season brought the Cardinals into the day 12-0 and ranked first in the state. “I thought we settled down and did a nice job, we just lost a little time.”
The outcome cemented quarterback Jack Joyce’s status as the most valuable player on a Darien team replete with outstanding personnel. Joyce threw for two touchdowns and ran for another.
Joyce missed the Turkey Bowl against New Canaan after he and two other starters were arrested the day before. Darien lost that game, 27-0. Joyce was the only one of the three to play during the playoffs, and the Blue Wave ended up unbeaten with him in the lineup.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Joyce said. “There’s nothing else that I love more. It’s awesome.”
Joyce rushed for a game-high 123 yards and threw for 102 more. Trifone had hyped Joyce throughout the preseason because of the added element he brings with his speed, which made him elusive to escape pressure for either long gains or to extend plays and allow receivers to get open.
“Jack has been stepping up for us all year long,” Trifone said. “He does a wonderful job. He has a lot of poise and people have to remember that kid never took a snap prior to this year.”
Darien took a lead it would not relinquish just 56 seconds in. Greenwich moved the ball just two yards on its first three plays and then a bad snap that caused punter Zach Moore to field it while on a knee gave the Blue Wave the ball on the 10-yard line.
They moved back to the 20 after a penalty, but on third down Joyce connected with Tyler Herget, who made a spectacular one-handed grab for a 7-0 advantage.
That was soon doubled when Joyce found a large opening and scampered 40 yards for a score.
Faced with their biggest deficit of the year, the Cardinals answered just 36 seconds later. Gavin Muir (15 of 34 for 280 yards) connected with Elias Gianopoulos on a 54-yard play that led to a 4-yard touchdown pass to Henry Saleeby that made the score 14-7.
Joyce’s 23-yard pass to TJ Cornacchia made it a two-score game again, but Jael Negron’s leaping catch on a jump ball thrown by Muir, who had avoided the rush, went for 41 yards and brought the Cardinals to within 21-13 after a failed two-point conversion.
What could have been a game-changing moment but instead twisted the momentum came on the penultimate play of the half. After Darien called a timeout, Greenwich’s second bad snap on a punt was recovered by Connor Fay, who rolled into the end zone for an apparent score. Instead, the ball was placed inches from the goal-line and the Cardinals made a stop as time expired.
The Cardinals’ special teams play got a lift in the second half, largely because of Moore’s three field goals, the latter two coming just under two minutes apart after Austin Hagander’s 37-yarder had given Darien a 24-16 lead.
While Greenwich’s defense controlled the second half, being forced to settle for field goals eventually was the determining factor.
“I wish we could have done more in a game like this,” Marinelli said. “We just couldn’t overcome early miscues and we couldn’t put the ball in the end zone when we had to. All season we converted on special teams. The weather didn’t help.”
The Blue Wave players said they remained confident as their lead dwindled.
“We’ve been in tough positions all year and when we needed to step up we were able to,” Fay said. “We get in that goal-line, we don’t get flustered, we keep playing our game.”
When the Cardinals got the ball back for a final time, given the course of the half, Trifone said he already was planning possible ways to stop Moore.
“Keeping them out of the end zone helped,” Trifone said. “Their field goal kicker did one heck of a job. I thought Johnny had a great game plan because he knew if the defense could hold us he could win by a point. On the sideline we looked at an iPad to look at two different blocks. Fortunately for us it never came to that.”
The Cardinals exceeded expectations, but failing at a chance to win their first state title in a decade proved disheartening.
“You give them a lot of credit, they kept on battling, and you give our guys a lot of credit,” Marinelli said. “We played our hearts out today, we just came up short.”
Come Monday night, voters will have to decide if the best team in the state is Darien or the winner of the Class S final between Ansonia, which is unbeaten, and St. Joseph, which is ranked higher than Darien in the poll right now and has just one loss — by 32 points to the Blue Wave.
“We came up big and played our game,” said Darien cornerback Connor Tienken. “I think this was the tightest of all three teams I’ve been on. We just love each other and trust each other. I think we are definitely No. 1.”