NEW CANAAN — Lou Marinelli stood outside the room the New Canaan football team uses for meetings early Thursday afternoon. Just a few hours earlier, Marinelli used it to give one of his usual rousing pregame speeches before sending the Rams out for another anticipated Turkey Bowl against Darien.
Now, hours later, the normally ebullient Marinelli was silent and stunned. New Canaan had rallied from a 34-10 second-half deficit to tie the game on a fourth-down run with 21 seconds remaining in regulation.
The Rams had all the momentum, the defense had not allowed a point after halftime and had just held the Blue Wave to a field goal on the first possession of overtime. But the roll was quickly halted as Darien linebacker Finlay Collins jumped a route on the next play, his interception securing a 37-34 victory, the team’s fifth straight on Thanksgiving.
Marinelli is the first to praise defeated opponents and find silver linings when his team has been beaten. This time, the Rams’ coach was soft spoken and struggling to find the proper words to explain his emotions. It was a futile effort.
The Darien-New Canaan rivalry has become the state’s best, and it is hard right now to find anything close. This is no longer just a border battle: during the last eight years there have been conference titles at stake and three subsequent rematches for the state championship. It is a game that has been taken off campuses to Boyle Stadium, where crowds that have totaled 10,000 people have come out even in snowy conditions.
Thursday’s game, with the large swings and dramatic ending, was the best in the last four years, when the Blue Wave have twice needed overtime and won each time by a total of seven or fewer points.
Given Marinelli’s mood, it was reasonable to wonder if the coach, at the spur of the moment, was offered the choice of a win over Darien or a Class L title, whether he would have been willing to keep the trophy case closed.
It was also the reason Darien coach Rob Trifone reacted as if he had won a championship, even though the FCIAC title was terminated after last year’s game between the teams because of the constraints of the state schedule. Trifone had anxious moments during the second half, and if the Rams had come all the way back and won it would have been a crushing blow. Only the news after the celebration that the Blue Wave would have a rematch with Greenwich in the first round of the state playoffs tempered Trifone’s mood, and that was quickly swept aside for planning later in the day.
Stating the case that Darien-New Canaan occupies the penthouse alone might not play well across the rest of the state, viewed as a parochial argument. Fairfield County isn’t the most popular area for high school sports with a good portion of Connecticut. And this is made with all due respect to games like Norwich Free Academy-New London, the state teams that have met the most on Thanksgiving.
What has raised the stakes for the Turkey Bowl is the sustained excellence of the two programs. This is much more than a border battle. The winner gets the inside track on finishing No. 1 in the state, which Darien will accomplish if it wins out. The Rams’ lone chance, most likely, is to win Class L and hope neither Darien nor West Haven take the Class LL title.
Darien-New Canaan will be on a higher plane until one or both schools come back to the pack, and who knows when that will happen. These are full-fledged programs in every sense of the term, in towns where youth football both flourish and serve as a feeder system. Remember, it was just months ago that we wondered if one or both schools would get caught from behind. Graduation losses hit both teams hard, and Ridgefield, Trumbull and Greenwich had a number of returning players.
Just the names change in these towns. Everyone knew the Blue Wave’s Andrew Stueber, and even quarterback Brian Peters. Now Collins — even before Thursday’s game — has been highly publicized, along with Cord Fox, Justin Plank, Mitch Pryor and Nick Green. Darien has been the ultimate team story; it has few stars but so many very good players.
The narrative has been the same in New Canaan. Ryan O’Connell was in all the preseason previews, along with freshman quarterback Drew Pyne. Who now hasn’t heard of Jack Kircher, James Freyre, Tommy Root, Will Conley or Jackson Appelt?
Imagine now what it is like for the two teams to play the biggest game of the year…and then have to rebound and win three more times or end the season empty-handed. It is very possible that in two weeks Darien will be the LL champion, New Canaan the L champion and finish respectively in the polls at Nos. 1 and 2.
And if both should somehow falter? The Turkey Bowl is a pretty nice parting gift.