What a long, strange trip it’s been.
The FCIAC football season started a week later than the rest of the state — St. Joseph’s two weeks — and schools had a hard time playing catch up.
Once they did, the league boasted in Darien and New Canaan the top two teams in the state, with the Blue Wave a unanimous No. 1 pick in the polls after a 12-0 finish. Save a 28-21 FCIAC final win over the Rams and the Blue Wave rolled over the rest of the state. There was never a letdown.
Similarly, in Darien’s Mark Evanchick and New Canaan’s Michael Collins, the conference arguably also boasted the best defensive and offensive players in the state. Evanchick set the state record for career sacks and was named the Gatorade Player of the Year. Collins might have won the award in any other year, setting the state mark for touchdown passes in a season and tying the single-game mark with nine.
The FCIAC placed five teams in the state playoffs and through tiebreakers Ridgefield — which was probably the best team not to qualify — just missed out.
Player Of The Year
Mark Evanchick, Darien
This came down to a two-player race, between Evanchick and Collins. It would be hard to argue with the selection of either, but in the end Evanchick was the more consistent player, and gets bonus points for dominating despite a steady diet of double teams. Evanchick finished with 23.5 sacks for the season and a state-record 66.5 for his career. Equally impressive were his 39 tackles for losses and 17 hurries. Evanchick was a completely disruptive force, and his presence allowed the state’s best secondary to yield just two passing scores all year. Evanchick’s battle with New Canaan’s offensive lineman Lucas Niang was like a heavyweight fight. For those who are going to miss Evanchick taking over a game on defense, lacrosse season is just a few months away.
Coach Of The Year
Donny Panapada, Trinity Catholic
First, a few words of praise for Darien’s Rob Trifone, who hasn’t received the credit he deserves because of the talent at his disposal. But Trifone moved his pieces wisely all year long and did a great job with his schemes and strategic choices. That being said, Panapada took a team that was winless two years ago and brought it within a win of playing for a state title. He had a good roster but not a great deal of depth and succeeded because of adapting, especially on offense, to an opponent’s weaknesses. Sometimes it was asking quarterback Anthony Lombardi and his receivers to do the heavy lifting, at others it was putting the ball in the hands of running back Jonmichael Bivona. Trinity pulled out close games and never played down to the level of weaker opponents. The Crusaders started with high expectations and met them.
Game Of The Year
New Canaan 42, North Haven 35
Okay, it is not like we had a lot to choose from here. If you want to go strictly by two FCIAC opponents, then the Thanksgiving Turkey Bowl is the prize winner. If not, the Class L final is the easy winner. The Indians proved their mettle and in fact were voted third behind Darien and New Canaan in the final state polls. The Rams were tested throughout and met the challenge, coming through with a pair of 15-play second-half drives to win their third straight title. They also adapted on offense and went to the ground game when North Haven dropped eight players back and dared them to run. After a year of so many dismal games, it was entertaining to see a championship end after two teams were forced to summon greatness.
QB: Michael Collins, New Canaan
RB: Shelby Grant, Darien
RB: Christian Trefz, St. Joseph
WR: Colin Minicus, Darien
WR: Kyle Smith, New Canaan
TE: Johnny Somers, Trinity Catholic
OL: Lucas Niang, New Canaan
OL: Andrew Steuber, Darien
OL: Jackson Ward, Staples
OL: Kevin Woodring, Greenwich
OL: Tim Beyer, St. Joseph
DL: Mark Evanchick, Darien
DL: James Makszin, Norwalk
DL: Chase Levi, Staples
DL: Matt Hall, New Canaan
LB: Cam Ryan, St. Joseph
LB: David Strupp, New Canaan
LB: Dante Cobelli, Ridgefield
DB: Bobby Trifone, Darien
DB: Christian Trifone, Darien
DB: Hudson Hamill, Darien
DB: Michael Cognetta, New Canaan
PK: Peter Swindell, New Canaan
P: Ryan Litton, Staples
Returner: Markeese Woods, Trumbull
QB: Timmy Graham, Darien
RB: Matt Cognetta, New Canaan
RB: Luke Bienstock, Greenwich
WR: Izaiah Sanders, Trinity Catholic
TE: Scooter Harrington, Greenwich
LB: Eddie O’Hara, Norwalk
DB: Joseph Lanni, Greenwich
All-FCIAC Analysis: We in the media complain about the FCIAC handing out too many awards — at least it trimmed down first team selections, divisional honors are like Little League with everyone getting a trophy — but in trying to make a real first team some really hard cuts were necessary. After picking a first team, there were seven players I saw play at least twice that deserve to be recognized. … At quarterback, Timmy Graham would have been an easy winner in any other year. Besides putting up great numbers, all he did was win. But Collins had a record-breaking season. … Running back was one of the hardest positions to pick. There were no great 1,500-yard backs as in recent seasons, but many very good ones of comparable abilities that lost carries because of their team’s passing games. Trefz got the nod because he had a bigger impact on his team’s offense. And the only reason Staples’ Ethan Burger is not here is because of injuries that caused him to miss half the season. … Wide receiver was also a hard position to distinguish. Sanders was pretty much the equal of our first-team picks, but Smith had an outstanding postseason. … I am guessing the biggest surprise here is at tight end. Somers got the nod because of the way he stepped up in big games and his ability for yards after the catch.
Final Fab 5
2. New Canaan
3. Trinity Catholic
5. St. Joseph
This was pretty much a dismal season on so many accounts. The league as a whole was down, and after several years of big games nearly every week, we had a severe drought this fall. Then we saw just how misguided the league’s decision to go to a nine-game schedule really was as, with state-mandated byes, many teams had difficulty gaining any momentum or lost it at midseason. It didn’t help that, with New Canaan and Darien in the final, the conference could in the end have played a 10-game schedule. As much as we loved the championship game, the FCIAC did the right thing by abandoning it.
The FCIAC can boast having the two best teams in the state. Many have asked to put Darien’s season in a historical perspective. On the one hand, all of Connecticut was down, but it is hard to see the Blue Wave not flourishing even in an up year. They had no weaknesses, great players at so many positions and quality depth. And to go undefeated, the Blue Wave had to beat the Rams in the league final, then came back and destroyed Southington in the Class LL semifinals, a battle at the time of 1 vs. 2.
If one play can characterize the Blue Wave’s season, it was Christian Trifone’s interception return for a touchdown on the first play in the final against Shelton. There was going to be no letdown following Southington. This was a driven team that was going to be satisfied by nothing less than perfection.
And in any normal year, the Rams would have been a fitting No. 1. They flourished despite being hit hard be injuries from opening day. New Canaan won a state title by beating three of the top 12 teams in the state, the most difficult overall path.
Most of the interest this season came from games between a deep middle class — Staples, Trinity Catholic, St. Joseph, Ridgefield, Trumbull, Norwalk, Greenwich — that would have made a beautifully balanced decision.
And with that, we close the book on the 2015 season. The 2016 opening weekend, next Sept. 9-10, features Darien at St. Joseph, New Canaan at Trinity Catholic and Trumbull at Ridgefield.
We can hardly wait.