NEW BRITAIN – Some might say Saturday’s Class LL state championship football game was really decided on the first play from scrimmage. That’s when Darien’s Christian Trifone returned an interception 20 yards for a touchdown.
Or one could make an argument it happened four plays later, when Shelton quarterback Zach Tuskowski went down with a shoulder injury and did not return.
But to be honest, Darien’s 39-7 victory Saturday at Willow Brook Park was set in stone well before either play. It was almost exactly one year ago. That was when the Blue Wave lost for the second consecutive year in the state final to rival New Canaan, this time by one point. Since then, they have been on a 12-month-long mission with one thing in mind:
“Our motto ever since we lost to New Canaan was ‘Unfinished business,’ ” Darien quarterback Tim Graham said.
Darien head coach Rob Trifone was well aware of his team’s mindset and took full advantage of it 24 hours earlier.
“Friday we were in the film room and I played a clip for the team from the last play of last year’s (state championship) game against New Canaan,” Trifone said, referring to New Canaan’s 21-20 come-from-behind victory. “After the play, the kids watched New Canaan celebrating, jumping up and down, high-fiving and hugging everybody. I could feel the hair on their necks stand straight up after watching that. Nobody said a word but I knew what they were feeling.”
The next day the Blue Wave were not to be denied. On the first snap of the game, Christian Trifone stepped in front of Shelton receiver Kevin Robinson, grabbed the ball and raced 20 yards for a touchdown. To say the top-ranked Gaels (12-1) were shocked is an understatement.
After the ensuing kickoff, Shelton ran a play for negative yardage. Two plays later came a 15-yard, blocking-below-the-knee penalty against the Gaels, and that was followed by another 15-yarder for unsportsmanlike conduct.
On the next play Tuskowski, who had thrown just one interception all year, was hit as he threw and was knocked out of the game with a shoulder injury. His day was done, and so was Shelton’s.
“The way the game started was picture perfect,” Rob Trifone said. “There couldn’t have been a better start for us.”
After a second interception, this time by Hudson Hamill against Shelton backup David Wells, it took Graham four plays to hit Hudson with a 3-yard scoring strike for a 12-0 lead just 3:11 into the game.
“After the first play,” Christian Trifone said, “the butterflies went away.”
It had quite the opposite effect on the Gaels.
“It was a tough way to start the game, that’s for sure,” Shelton head coach Jeff Roy said. “But we should hold our heads high because that’s the best team in the state and they have no weaknesses.”
The victory not only wiped away the memory of last December for the No. 2-seeded Blue Wave (12-0), who figure to end up as the unanimous No. 1 team in the state, but it also ended a 19-year state championship drought for this proud program. Darien had lost in its last six trips to the state finals between 1997 and last year.
“We knew we blew it last year,” said Graham, who was 19 for 29 for 252 yards and two touchdowns for the Blue Wave. He ended the season with 41 touchdown passes and five interceptions. “So we came here today determined to leave it all out on the field.”
“We’ve been gearing for this for a long time,” added Bobby Trifone, who later also added an interception return for a touchdown. “It really started in 3rd grade when a lot of the seniors started playing together. We’ve been working so hard, all for this moment.”
Bobby Trifone’s 48-yard interception return came midway through the second quarter and gave Darien an 18-0 lead.
“After (Christian) did it,” Bobby Trifone said of the interceptions, “I said, ‘OK, now it’s my turn.’ ”
For the coach to get a pick-6 from each of his sons, both of whom were first-team All-Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference defensive backs this season, is remarkable.
Actually, believe it or not, their dad was expecting it.
“I told both of them before the game,” the coach said, “that they both better get a pick-6 or they sleep in a motel (Saturday) night.”
The two interception returns for scores were quite important. Darien only outgained Shelton, 145-111, in the first half as Shelton ran off 36 plays to 24.
“I was a little worried that we’d have trouble replicating the kind of intensity we showed against Southington (a 49-7 Darien win in last Monday’s semifinals),” Rob Trifone said. “We were off a little on offense today, but the defense picked it up.”
The Darien defense, led by the Trifone boys, Sam Giorgio, Quintin Fay and Mark Evanchick, was spectacular. Shelton ended up with just 124 total yards (13 in the second half). The Gaels, who needed to run the ball after Tuskowski’s injury, had 20 yards rushing on 25 attempts and just 7 yards rushing on 15 first-down attempts, which only put more pressure on Wells.
Graham and the offense started clicking in the second half. After Shelby Grant capped the opening drive with a 5-yard scoring run, Mark Schmidt’s interception at the Shelton 11 set up Grant for another 7-yard touchdown run and a 32-0 lead late in the third quarter.
Later in the fourth quarter Graham added a 36-yard touchdown pass to Hamill (eight receptions for 90 yards and two TDs).
Shelton finally got on the board when Wells (11 for 24, 95 yards and three interceptions) connected with Robinson (six catches for 86 yards) for a 24-yard score with five minutes remaining.
When the game ended the scene was similar to the one the Blue Wave players watched on Friday in the film room . . . but this time nobody’s hair stood on end.
“We won the FCIAC, now the LL and will be No. 1 in the state; it’s the Triple Crown,” Rob Trifone said. “To finally get the state championship and have my two sons score on interceptions like that, it’s a dream come true. This is truly as good as it gets.”
NOTES: It was Darien’s 13th appearance in a state final. The Blue Wave were 4-8 and had lost their last six trips to the final since beating Bloomfield 21-16 in 1996. Shelton was making its seventh appearance (4-2) but had lost its last two since beating Staples 35-18 in 2003. … Darien reached the final by defeating No. 7 seed Staples 41-7 and No. 3 Southington 49-7 while Shelton beat No. 8 West Haven 40-20 and No. 4 Newtown 35-28. … Darien came into the game having scored 497 points while allowing 126 this season, an average score of 41-11. Shelton (481-157) averaged 40 points per game and allowed 13.