The high school football season ended late Saturday afternoon, with Darien and New Canaan, 37 miles and about 15 minutes apart, winning state championships. Four FCIAC schools were playing on the last day, and when the final state poll was released on Monday, the conference occupied the top three spots.
This was the year of the FCIAC.
A little over three months ago we wondered if Darien and New Canaan had lost too many players, and whether the rest of the pack had finally gained ground, to continue as ascendant powers. Darien defeated Ridgefield on Saturday for its 25th straight win and second consecutive Class LL title and No. 1 ranking in the state. New Canaan defeated Windsor, 35-20, for its fourth straight CIAC championship and coach Lou Marinelli’s 331st win, tying him for the most in Connecticut history. The Rams ended up No. 2 in the poll.
The difference between Darien and New Canaan? A 3-point overtime win on Thanksgiving. Razor thin.
Spoiler alert: if you want to wait until next September to see the first line of my 2017 football preview, read no further. Because I can assure you I will be quoting from The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again, as in never will I speculate about the possible demise of Darien and/or New Canaan until it actually happens. I will now play the percentages.
Darien won with a well-balanced team that had few stars and fewer weaknesses, just 11 good players always out on the field. New Canaan flourished behind one of the best defenses in school history.
Not that we had it wrong about the rest of the pack. We assumed a tone would be set for the winner of the season-opener between Ridgefield and Trumbull. The Tigers rallied from 29 points behind and rode that all the way to finishing as the No. 3-ranked team in the state. The Eagles ended up just barely on the outside of the top 15.
St. Joseph was on the inside after reaching the Class M final, where it lost to Hillhouse. So was Greenwich, which reached the Class LL playoffs in coach John Marinelli’s second season. The Cardinals lost four times — to Darien twice, New Canaan and Ridgefield.
The league voted on Tuesday to maintain a two-division format, with Ridgefield and Danbury swapping spots for better balance.
When it is time to cast our first state vote next summer, Darien and New Canaan — order to be determined — will be in the first two positions.
Now, the envelopes, please.
Most Outstanding Player
Andrew Stueber, Darien
Stueber is perhaps the most underappreciated star in recent memory. Why? The 6-6, 300-pound lineman has been a prisoner of his own success. We expect him to play at such a high level. Then there is the nature of the position when it comes to bestowing postseason awards. Linemen don’t stand out except when breaking down game film. Plus, Stueber was surrounded by great talent. Watch Darien’s first touchdown in Saturday’s 28-7 Class LL win over Ridgefield. Quarterback Brian Peters took six seconds before finding Finlay Collins open. Peters very well could have taken another six seconds. Stueber was so good defensively that it was hard for coach Rob Trifone to rest him. Stueber had just two of the Blue Wave’s 53 sacks, but how many did he help account for because of constant double-teams? Trifone said two years ago Stueber was going to be one of the most dominant players in league history. He was right.
Most Valuable Player
Finlay Collins, Darien; Ryan O’Connell, New Canaan
What is the difference between most outstanding and most valuable? I can make the argument that the former is the best overall, while the latter is the one that, if the player were removed, it would have the most harmful effect on his team. In reality, it would be hard not to recognize Collins and O’Connell for their value in state championship seasons, and I honestly cannot pick one over the other because they both stood out on both sides of the ball. Collins was as good as any linebacker in the league, and soon emerged as the Blue Wave’s top offensive weapon, rushing for 973 yards, catching 34 passes for 475 yards and finishing with a team-high 15 touchdowns. O’Connell played the same role for the Rams, especially offensively early in the season, as freshman Drew Pyne was settling in at quarterback and an identity was still not formed. O’Connell was the security blanket, finishing with 1,136 all-purpose yards and 20 touchdowns, numbers that would have been inflated if not for a high ankle sprain that limited his playing time on offense over the final five games. On defense, O’Connell finished with eight interceptions and was a lock-down cornerback. If you were starting a team, would Collins or O’Connell be the first pick? I’d be fine selecting No. 2.
Coach Of The Year
Bruce Cunningham, Wilton
Two of the teams considered sleepers back on opening day were Wilton and Fairfield Warde, and the feeling was the outcome would set the tone for the winning team’s season. That was indeed the case after the Warriors held on for a 21-14 decision. Wilton won three of its first four games, then lost two of three before finishing strong with a three-game winning streak, highlighted by a 30-3 rout of Trinity Catholic to end the season. In the Warriors’ final four wins they allowed a total of three points. Two of the losses came to Darien and St. Joseph. Wilton under Cunningham has had a reputation for always playing hard but often being held back by a lack of depth. Cunningham got about all that could realistically have been expected, leading Wilton to its first winning season since going 6-4 win 2011 and the most victories since 2007.
Game Of The Year
Darien 37, New Canaan 34 (OT)
Now when the state’s best rivalry is held, there are no longer any titles on the line. Just bragging rights and playoff seeding. It is hard for the Turkey Bowl to exceed the hype, especially when the teams are Nos. 1 and 2 in the state, but Darien and New Canaan accomplished that in what turned out to be a tale of two halves. The Blue Wave took a 34-10 lead in the third quarter and seemed like they would easily roll to their fifth straight holiday win. Then the Rams’ defense started to dominate, and Pyne led a rally that ended with O’Connell’s late touchdown trying the score at 34-34 and forcing overtime. New Canaan held Darien to a field goal on its first possession, but Collins came up with the game-winning interception on the next play. How important was the outcome? The difference between ending up No. 1 and 2 in the state.
Ruden Report All-FCIAC Team
QB: John McElroy, Trumbull
RB: Kevin Iobbi, Greenwich
RB: Ryan O’Connell, New Canaan
RB: Shane Palmer, Ridgefield
WR: Jared Mallozzi, St. Joseph
WR: Chris Longo, Ridgefield
WR: Dan Hoffmann, Trumbull
TE: Ryan Fitton, Staples
OL: Andrew Stueber, Darien
OL: Will Conley, New Canaan
OL: Nick Roehm, Staples
OL: Chase Piro, Greenwich
OL: Ryan Sweeney, Trinity Catholic
DL: James Makszin, Norwalk
DL: Jack Kircher, New Canaan
DL: Brendan Holtzclaw, Westhill
DL: Cord Fox, Darien
DL: Ben Kraninger, Greenwich
DL: Quinn Fay, Darien
LB: Finlay Collins, Darien
LB: James Freyre, New Canaan
LB: Paul Williams, Greenwich
LB: Patrick Lang, Ridgefield
LB: Mekhi Barnett, Westhill
DB: Nick Osborne, St. Joseph
DB: Jackson Appelt, New Canaan
DB: Tommy Root, New Canaan
DB: Matt D’Elisa, Wilton
K: Petros Papadopoulos, Ridgefield
P: Dillon Jones, Darien
All-FCIAC Analysis: Call me a halfway hypocrite. I killed the league for putting 39 players on the first team, but when I made out my initial list there were 35 players on it. The issue was there were so many players of comparable ability, and both defensive line and especially linebackers were deep with talent. So for the record, here are the players who were late cuts so I could keep it to 30 players, but too deserving to ignore: Trinity Catholic’s Jonmichael Bivona, Ridgefield’s Will Carpenter, Staples’ Julian Ross, Trumbull’s Markeese Woods and New Canaan’s Teddy Hood. I labored over the choices — way too long. It was that close. … Quinn Fay earned his way onto the team with seven sacks in the state semifinal and final games to finish with 16. I thought Cord Fox was the one glaring omission by the FCIAC coaches. I couldn’t leave either player off. There are six players worthy of debate for top player this season, the three I selected here, along with Mallozzi, McElroy and Palmer. They are finalists for our Player of the Year reader vote that starts Sunday.
Final Fab 5
2. New Canaan