Just a month ago, when the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference unveiled regions for a fall season just hours before the football committee recommended pushing its sport to fall, the rumor was the Turkey Bowl, the annual holiday rivalry game between Darien and New Canaan, would be the season opener.
Though many were talking about a Columbus Day weekend extravaganza in all sports, in a season in which we don’t know if we will get to the starting and finishing lines, playing your biggest rival right away makes sense.
Thus, as I made trips to both Darien and New Canaan yesterday before starting a brief vacation, it was not surprising to hear new Blue Wave head coach Mike Forget discussing the possibility of holding senior day to start instead of ending the regular season.
Welcome to the 2020 FCIAC fall sports season, the duration still to be determined due to the coronavirus pandemic. It took a month of back and forth just to determine that an hour of conditioning and skill work can begin, with no guarantees that a ball will get kicked off on Oct. 1, now the scheduled starting date for the first games.
“It’s been tough,” New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli said. “Think of the emotional rollercoaster for the kids. Some of them missed lacrosse last year, they missed baseball, they missed track. Now all of a sudden there’s a chance to miss football as well. It’s mind-bending. But they are better off here than wherever they would be without having practice.”
Yesterday was unlike practices I’ve attended, as players maintained distance. There were never more than 10 players — cohort is the current “it” word — for certain drills. Tennis balls were used at Darien, tackling dummies at New Canaan.
I conducted interviews with a mask on. Some of the players I spoke to did and some didn’t, but we never invaded the new six-foot personal space barrier and were usually farther apart. Both teams were following the strict guidelines.
“It hasn’t been very difficult at all,” Forget said. “It’s just management of the cohorts. Making sure kids are social distanced. That’s the hardest part of it. The kids conditioned all summer.”
Forget has been elevated from defensive coordinator to head coach — on an interim basis; the school said it never completed the interview process after Rob Trifone stepped down last winter — assuring a smoother transition than would have happened with a hire from outside the program.
“A few tweaks here and there,” Forget said. “I brought most of the staff with me over the years. It was easy. It was easy to get the staff together, it was easy to get the plan together because it is what we’ve been doing all along.”
The starting line still seems far away and the regionalized schedules remain a mystery so it is fruitless to size up any kind of preseason rankings. The Blue Wave were last seen losing to Newtown in the Class LL championship on the final play, having to live not only with a crushing loss but it becoming national news.
Darien was hit hard by graduation losses, but Forget reminded that affects a program like his less than others.
“I think we’ve got the potential to be really good,” he said. “We have a good balance of seniors and juniors who are ready to play. We’re a next-man-up system. The next man up is going to get the job done.”
Forget does have four years head coaching experience, at Fairfield Ludlowe, ending in 2004.
In contrast, Marinelli is about to start his 40th season with the Rams. Or at least his fourth decade with a preseason. It doesn’t necessarily provide an edge with a deadly virus causing major changes in preparation.
“It’s crazy. You make all these plans and there are things you want to do, then you don’t start for a month later than you are supposed to start,” Marinelli said. “And the practice plans, you have to get everything in an hour. But it’s better than not doing anything at all.”
For the first time in what seems like a decade but in reality is four years, Drew Pyne is not the starting quarterback at New Canaan. With Pyne now at Notre Dame, Reid Brown appears to be the Rams’ next man up at the position, with a few candidates in the waiting.
Both coaches have high hopes. Only this year they focus right now on having a season.
“Turkey Bowl anytime, anytime,” Marinelli said when given the idea of having the game nearly two months earlier than usual. “Just as long as we play it. We should probably play it first game, just to make sure we get it in.”