NEW CANAAN — You know the coach, the quarterback, the program.
In the polarized world of FCIAC football, New Canaan is one of the fixture elites, teams that aim not just to get into the playoffs but to win titles.
New Canaan needs to rebuild its offensive line, replace its biggest playmaker and retool its defense. Players in supporting roles a year ago are now expected to take the next step.
In other words, pretty much your typical preseason for the Rams.
When the Rams opened last season with a 28-0 loss to St. Joseph — the second straight year the Cadets started them off with a setback — the underachievement talk started for a team many had tabbed as a preseason No. 1. A subsequent four-touchdown defeat by Greenwich left New Canaan at 3-2 and no margin for error to get to the state playoffs.
The Rams ran the table — including a must-win 17-14 Turkey Bowl decision over Darien — until they were routed again by the Cardinals in the state final. The three defeats matched the most by the team in 13 years.
Despite all the personnel losses, New Canaan is a program that reloads and always has its sights set on winning championships.
There are a number of starters to replace, but some talented players ready to step in. Plus a pretty good quarterback.
Visiting the Rams’ first practice with pads on, what was being said was as notable as the work on execution.
“We’re optimistic,” New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli said. “We have a bunch of new guys we’re trying to break in and still trying to see who is playing where and finding out about special teams and everything else. It’s so early. I think the attitude has been great and the best thing about a new year is it’s a new feeling, a new chemistry, all new kids. That’s the fun part of this year, any beginning of the year. You’re trying to find out your identity as a team.”
Discussing the changes from a year ago at this time, running back and defensive back Drew Guida added, “The biggest difference is kids are out here and competing. We’re losing a bunch of guys and everyone is out here trying to prove themselves, trying to gain a spot. We have guys tackling first days in helmets, they love the competition. Everybody’s playing well. Everybody’s feeding off each other.”
The headlining name on the marquee is three-year starting quarterback Drew Pyne, who threw for 2,600 yards and 30 touchdowns and is tied with recently graduated Staples baseball player Chad Knight for the title of the outstanding athlete and genuinely nice person who has turned opponents into critics because of nothing more than jealousy.
Pyne is such a given that when discussing the team, Marinelli said, “The quarterback, I feel pretty good about him.” The coach was not being sarcastic.
The loss of Quintin O’Connell at receiver is considerable, but look for players like Guida, Zach LaPolice, Christian Sweeney and Luke Morton to help make up the production. The offensive line is new but still formidable. Guida watched Saturday as the unit jogged off the field 10 minutes after practice ended.
“The amount of work they put in during the offseason, hours before lifts, hours after practice is just something great,” Guida said.
The talk is the running game, not enough of a priority in recent seasons, will become a bigger weapon.
“We haven’t done it yet but we want to try and run the ball this year more than we have,” Marinelli said. “I think our running backs have looked good and we have a number of them. We have to see how that goes.”
Most of the leading tacklers last year are gone, but Guida, Chris Canet and Matt Rigione offer experience.
“Defensively I think we’re ahead of where we’ve been,” Marinelli said. “I think the secondary could be a strength for us. It’s a work in progress.”
Player To Watch
Will Pirrone. The Rams lost a lot on both lines. Offensively, 6-7 tackles Will Conley and Will Stewart graduated, and promising junior David Siegal is out for the season after suffering a torn labrum.
Enter the 290-pound Pirrone, an offensive guard and defensive nose guard.
“He played on and off last year and he wasn’t quite there yet, but he’s worked pretty hard,” Marinelli said. “He’s really been playing well. He will be one of the better lineman for us, if not the league.”
New Canaan and Darien switched divisions — two Thanksgiving rivals will now do so annually to alter the schedules — so the Rams have dropped Greenwich and picked up Staples and Ridgefield. They still play St. Joseph and Darien. The first three games are on the road.
Both the Rams and St. Joseph are now together in Class L, adding greater intrigue to their week four meeting. Will there be a December reprisal?
It is difficult to see New Canaan missing out on the playoffs, an annual rite. How well the new starters perform will dictate whether the Rams win their first state title since 2016.
Sept. 13 at New London 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 20 at Ridgefield 7 p.m.
Sept. 28 at Stamford 1 p.m.
Oct. 4 ST. JOSEPH 7 p.m.
Oct. 19 FAIRFIELD WARDE 2 p.m.
Oct. 25 at Staples 7 p.m.
Nov. 1 BRIEN MCMAHON 7 p.m.
Nov. 8 TRUMBULL 7 p.m.
Nov. 15 WILTON 7 p.m.
Nov. 28 at Darien 10 a.m.