Never in recent memory has an FCIAC football season started with so much uncertainty. About the only thing that can be written in ink: there will be no league championship game for the first time in a half-century as CIAC regulations have left the conference with no alternative, despite the popularity of the game and the wishes of coaches and FCIAC officials.
After that, everything else should be penciled in. Why so much speculation? Only four players who were named to the All-FCIAC team return. This fall you will truly be unable to tell the players during the first month without a program.
Darien and New Canaan were voted 1-2 — as they finished a year ago — in the state writers’ preseason poll. Each will be strong on both lines, and each has a tradition of rolling off impact players from the assembly line.
Who else will emerge to challenge for state playoff spots? Everyone is buying stock on Staples and Ridgefield because of veteran casts. The same is true of Trumbull. The feeling is that Trinity Catholic and perhaps Greenwich will be in the hunt.Video: FCIAC Football Preview (1): Andrew Stueber, Tyler Farris, Marvin Jean-Pierre, Bryan Azarian
This figures to be a season of cannibalization, especially in Class LL. The best teams all have two to three games against each other, which means that some top 15-caliber schools will be sitting home after Thanksgiving. Friday’s game between Ridgefield and Trumbull is a prime example.
1. Darien. Yes, nearly all the running backs and receivers who accounted for 4,900 yards of total offense are gone. The entire secondary, gone. State sack leader Mark Evanchick, quarterback Timmy Graham? Gone, gone. But the offensive line is going to be better than a year ago, when the Blue Wave finished 12-0, with league and state titles and as the No. 1 in the state. And the replacements, while not likely to reach the level of arguably the best graduating class in school history, are not a liability but names you just aren’t familiar with yet, unless you paid careful attention to the second half of last year’s blowouts. Without an offensive line it doesn’t matter what you have elsewhere, and with Andrew Stueber, Cord Fox and Brian Keating going left to center, this is the team’s great asset. Charlie Zuro and Mike Neary, stepping in on the right side, are expected to be great assets. On the defensive line, Stueber and Fox will take turns and join Quinn Fay and Justin Plank. Fay and Fox combined for 13 sacks a year ago. Quarterback Brian Peters has had a strong offseason. Looking for some new names to keep an eye on? Linebacker Finlay Collins was third in tackles a year ago and might have been the most underrated player on the roster. Seniors Tim Herget and Spencer Jarecke will stretch the field, and juniors Max Grant, Mitch Pryor and Sean O’Malley can contribute on both sides of the ball. Riley Stewart makes the kicking game a strength. The names may have changed, but, like the offensive line, they are poised to protect Darien’s place in the polls.
2. New Canaan. The head says Staples belongs here. Tradition says don’t discount the Rams, who finished No. 2 in the state a year ago. Darien and New Canaan both were hit the same by graduation, but more seems to be known at this point about Darien. Which is of little bother to New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli, as long as his newcomers perform to expectations. What could be known as Quarterback High after a decade-long run of top offensive leaders, topped off by last year’s record-book breaker, Michael Collins, this fall starts with the greatest uncertainty in recent memory. Senior James Crovatto will open as the starter Saturday against Trinity Catholic, but freshman Drew Pyne is waiting in the wings. Ryan O’Connell, who finished with 7 interceptions last year, is penciled in to be the featured running back, though he could play receiver and is such an asset may play on defense as well. Teddy Hood and Will Conley lead the offensive line, while Tommy Root is coming off a strong showing in the secondary. The Rams have relied on a committee of strong receivers in recent years, and that will remain a constant. It won’t take long to get a read on New Canaan — it opens at home against the Crusaders and Ridgefield. The Thanksgiving game with Darien won’t be for the league title this year, but much figures to be at stake.
3. Staples. Wreckers coach Marce Petroccio has made no secret that he is throwing his chips into the table when it comes to his team’s prospects this fall, and with good reason. With all the Darien and New Canaan talk, fans seem to forget that Staples qualified for the state playoffs a year ago, falling in the first round to Darien. The Wreckers have a veteran offensive line, led by Nick Roehm, which will make it easier for returning quarterback Andrew Speed to get the ball to tight end Ryan Fitton, a UConn commit who will be one of the league’s best players. Julian Ross, Max Lonergan and Brendan Massoud form a promising receiving corp, while the loss for the season of running back Ethan Burger means a group led by Elliott Poulley and Harris Levi will initially share carries. Even with all those pieces, it is on defense where Staples may do the most muscle flexing, with a strong pass rush complemented by a skilled secondary. The Wreckers should be in a good place before games against Ridgefield, St. Joseph, Darien and Greenwich, with two byes tossed in, to close out the regular season. That stretch should dictate whether this is a team with championship caliber stock.
4. Ridgefield. OK, a new year and the Tigers can officially shed the title from last November as the best team not to qualify for the state playoffs, which to them has meant as much as being Miss Congeniality at a beauty pageant. The team comes in riding a five-game winning streak that included a victory over Staples, and with an offense that figures to be high powered, with quarterback Drew Fowler throwing to Chris Longo and Collin Lowe. Almost everyone who accounted for big yardage is back, part of a strong senior class that coach Kevin Callahan expects is going to take his team to the next level. The defense was feisty last season, and it is in this area that Ridgefield took the biggest hit in personnel losses. The Tigers will be the perfect team to put under the microscope for the case study that some very good FCIAC teams are going to be done in by brutal schedules. They have lost their season opener in four of the last five years, and start against Trumbull and New Canaan. With upcoming games against Trinity Catholic, Staples and Greenwich, the team is probably going to have to open up no worse than 1-1 to shed that unwarranted title of a year ago. Fortunately, with the talent on the roster, there is cause for optimism that a brutal slate can be overcome.
5. Trumbull. Few schools have as many key players back as the Eagles, a team coach Bob Maffei has been touting almost from the moment last year’s 5-4 season ended. Running back/return specialist Markeese Woods is as dangerous as any player in the league, someone opposing teams put high in their game plans. The combination of quarterback John McElroy, back for his third year, to receiver Danny Hoffman will be just as explosive. Four other receivers who had double-digit receptions will ensure a diversified attack. So why wasn’t the record better? The Eagles yielded an average of 37 points a game in their four losses — skewed by a 69-26 blowout by New Canaan. That started a three-game season-ending losing streak, though all but one of the defeats was to teams that qualified for the state playoffs. Many players from that unit are back, and the experience of defensive ends Jake Dudal and Joe Turner and linebackers Ryan Kelly and Harris Klas should spark significant improvement. The much anticipated opener at Ridgefield will be a key and should set the tone for just how big a climb in the standings is forthcoming.
Keep An Eye On
6. Trinity Catholic. The Crusaders followed a season-opening setback against Greenwich with nine straight wins, including a rout of Morgan in the opening round of the state playoffs before a hard-fought loss to Ansonia. The Anthony Lombardi era is over, and there will be more balance on the Crusaders, due to a huge offensive line and a top running back in Jonmichael Bivona. Nick Granata, one of the most underrated linebackers a year ago, takes over at quarterback, and the defense has tackling machine Nick Melia back on defense along with Greenwich transfer Frank Alfano, who will lead the secondary. There is a lot to like on the roster, but the first five weeks of the schedule are brutal: New Canaan, Greenwich, Norwalk, Trumbull, Ridgefield. Depth is always a concern with the program because of numbers. But if the Crusaders can start 3-2 a return to the state playoffs will be well in reach.Video: FCIAC Football Preview (3): Ryan Fitton, Ryan Holbrook, Jonmichael Bivona, Navaughan Austin
7. Greenwich. Don’t buy into the Cardinals because of their success in offseason 7 on 7 tournaments, which provide helpful tools but do little to portend the future. But be cautious because this could be another team that will be much better but must contend with one of the state’s most difficult schedules. Connor Langan, an All-FCIAC second team defensive back, and Gavin Muir will be at quarterback, but though second-year coach John Marinelli is known for his love of the passing game from his New Canaan days, he is a realist and will again look more heavily at the running game because of the return of Kevin Iobbi and depth at the position. People forget that yards per game a year ago were almost equally split: 162-144 in favor of the pass. Ty Farris is a speedster at receiver. Line play should be much improved. But six opponents at this point appear to have realistic state playoff hopes. The Cardinals will be a compelling follow.
8. St. Joseph. The Cadets were written off a year ago due to personnel losses and managed to find their way back to the state tournament. Now St. Joseph finds itself…sitting in exactly the same position. Will the results be the same? Cory Babineau provides coach Joe Della Vecchia with a veteran quarterback. He is surrounded by a number of newcomers, one of whom appears to be a future star: freshman running back Jaden Shirden. He was a popular topic among opposing coaches at FCIAC Media Day. Defensive end Brian Harner and safety Nick Osborne lead a retooling defense. The temptation is to say rebuilding year for the Cadets. But tradition and a schedule slightly more manageable than the average teams’ are mitigating factors.
9. Norwalk. The aforementioned seven schools have received the bulk of the preseason attention, so if you are looking for a true sleeper, Norwalk is worth keeping an eye on. Two-way lineman James Makszin recently gave a verbal commitment to Temple and is one of the state’s most dominant players. Krishtjan Frrokaj returns at quarterback and Deondre Russell will be a favorite target. The defense is young, and the schedule has back to back dates early with Trinity Catholic and Ridgefield and later with New Canaan, Greenwich and Trumbull. But there is a lot of skill on this team.
10. Fairfield Warde. We will throw one more sleeper your way. With a strong offensive line that has two seniors and three juniors returning, a top running back in Bryan Azarian and a go-to receiver in Mike Whiting, the Mustangs are an intriguing team. Many of the leading tacklers are back on defense, ready to solidify a unit that gave up an average of 31 points a game. David Summers will take over at quarterback. If Ridgefield-Trumbull is the opening week contender bowl, than Warde-Wilton is the sleeper bowl. A six- or seven-win season may very well be in reach for Warde.
Rest Of The Pack
Wilton. More often than not in recent seasons, the Warriors’ biggest problem hasn’t been quality but quantity. Their starting lineup could stand up with others for three quarters before wearing down at the end. The word is the numbers are coming back up in town. What does that mean for this year? Matt D’Elisa is making the move from defense to quarterback for a team that struggled to score last season. Will Litton will lead the ground game, while Rob Hermann and Joe Pozzi are the top receivers. Defensively, keep an eye on linebackers T.J. Kedzierski and Steffen Nobles, and cornerback Jake Savvaides. A win over Warde Friday could set the tone for a winning year.
Brien McMahon. Last year was taxing for the Senators, who opened with a win before losing six straight and going 2-7. McMahon is not ready to return to the level of 2013-14, when it was in the hunt for playoff berths until the final weeks of the regular season. How much better will the Senators be this fall? A lot will depend on the improvement of returning quarterback Chris Druin. Much is being expected of linemen like Marvin Jean-Pierre and T.J. Coleman.
Danbury. Second-year coach Alex Trasacco said he has already put the memories of a 1-8 finish into storage. The Hatters graduated many of their top offensive skill players. The hope is that Aaron Agosto will be the leader of a revived ground game, while Titus James is one of the league’s top pass rushers.
Westhill. The word out of Westhill is a strong offseason in the weight room is going to translate into a better showing after finishing 2-7 a year ago. Blake Newcomer returns at quarterback after sharing time last fall. The defense could be the Vikings’ calling card, especially with Mehki Barnett leading the way.
Stamford. It was a tumultuous offseason to say the least for the Black Knights, who saw coach Jamar Greene forced to reapply for his job, lose it, then gain it back on appeal. Besides being a PR nightmare for the school, valuable months were wasted. Stamford now has its rally cap on. If the offensive line can perform in sync, Tyrell Diaz is one of the league’s most powerful backs. Troy Duncan is back at quarterback. Greene has a formidable task given the hand he was dealt.
Fairfield Ludlowe. Josh Evans takes over at quarterback for the Falcons, who are moving last year’s starter, Aidan Kudzy, to receiver to better utilize his play-breaking ability. He will form a solid 1-2 punch with Javion Beasley as Ludlowe looks to become more dangerous offensively after putting up just 124 points a year ago.
Bridgeport Central. The Hilltoppers are coming off a 1-9 finish, and coach Mike Farrell, with increased budget cuts in the city, is continuously asked to do more with less. It is a tough situation. He will be counting on Navaughn Austin, who said he can play most positions, to lead the offense, likely at running back.
All-TRR Preseason 15 Team
Jonmichael Bivona, Trinity Catholic
Will Conley, New Canaan
Tyler Farris, Greenwich
Ryan Fitton, Staples
Drew Fowler, Ridgefield
Cord Fox, Darien
Dan Hoffman, Trumbull
Teddy Hood, New Canaan
Titus James, Danbury
Chris Longo, Ridgefield
James Makszin, Norwalk
Ryan O’Connell, New Canaan
Andrew Speed, Staples
Andrew Stueber, Darien
Markeese Woods, Trumbull