Most teams in the state would envy what the Darien football team accomplished last season. Nine straight wins to open the season and a berth in the state playoffs. Sure, the year ended with losses to New Canaan, the Blue Wave’s biggest rival, and a Class LL quarterfinal defeat to Newtown.
Most anywhere else, the end-of-year celebration would have focused on the souvenir of a postseason appearance.
Not in Darien, which had won three straight state titles and been voted the top team in the state.
“We go 9-2 and you thought it was a funeral march at the banquet,” Blue Wave coach Rob Trifone said. “When you raise the bar high and you win three state championships, 9-2 obviously isn’t what the players want. These players dedicated themselves after that Newtown loss.”
Trifone was talking moments after Darien’s thrilling 27-21 win over Greenwich. It was a day of validation for players that felt the need to prove themselves again, especially after local sportswriters — hand raised here — picked Greenwich to win the game.
“It was a great football game and they’re a great opponent,” said Anthony Morello, the Cardinals’ first-year coach. “If there is anything to be learned from this it’s that we can play with those guys, and they’re one of the best if not the best in the state. They do it every year. When you put yourself in a 21-0 hole against a team like that, the odds of you pulling it out aren’t great.”
The end of last season did not sit well with the current senior class. Last year’s team felt like it failed in upholding a tradition, though when the measuring stick is state title or bust, it is a standard almost impossible to maintain.
In this era of polarization, there are fewer regular-season games to look forward to. The middle tier schools have been unable to play with the state playoff contenders. And many of the most anticipated games — see: anyone against St. Joseph — have failed to live up to the hype.
Saturday’s game looked like it would be another in the collection when the Blue Wave jumped out to a 21-0 lead. Then the Cardinals used a late first-half touchdown and score after forcing a fumble on the second-half kickoff to get back in the game.
After Greenwich tied the game a defensive battle ensued, until Darien quarterback Peter Graham, enjoying a sensational year, led what proved to be the game-winning drive, hitting Jackson Peters for the decisive touchdown.
What does the outcome mean going forward? The Blue Wave all but guaranteed itself a berth in the state playoffs, a likely first-round home game and the possibility of the top seed in Class LL. There should be no problem over the next three games before the Turkey Bowl against New Canaan.
A loss — the Rams could be in a position of qualifying for the Class L playoffs with a win — would not likely sink Darien below the fourth seed.
Greenwich probably only hurt itself in terms of seeding. The Cardinals are now eighth in Class LL and will have the opportunity to climb up if they win out. The one possible roadblock is a home game against Ridgefield, which is currently in fifth place and very much in play for a postseason berth.
The positive for the Cardinals is they came back from the early deficit and played Darien evenly. The game ended with them inadvertently spiking the ball on fourth down from the Blue Wave 13. What would have happened with one more play? We will never know.
“Defensively we made mistakes early on, had some blown coverages and they made some great plays,” Morello said. “The fact that we were able to score and turn things around in the second half was very encouraging and I am very proud of the kids and the team for what they put into tonight. I feel horrible for them because they are going to have to swallow this and it’s going to be tough to swallow because of the way it ended but it’s a learning experience.”
Postseason rematches are often undesired, but is there anyone that would not like to see Darien-Greenwich II?
Well, maybe one.
“It’s fun for you guys. It’s not fun for me,” Trifone said. “But sure. You coach your whole life and you don’t get a game like this, with No. 3 and 4 or whatever the heck we are. I just hope we don’t see them again. They’re a very good football team.”
1. St. Joseph (6-0). The Cadets have now defeated top seven teams by 44 and 41 points. Can they be stopped?
2. Darien (6-0). The Blue Wave now have the inside track on the top seed in the Class LL playoffs.
3. Greenwich (5-1). The Cardinals played the Blue Wave almost evenly. No reason to believe their long-term goals are unattainable.
4. Ridgefield (5-1). The Tigers go back to work trying to qualify for the state playoffs after their 41-0 loss to St. Joseph. A trip to Greenwich looms in three weeks.
5. New Canaan (4-2). The Rams played their best half of the season on Friday against Staples, scoring the final 24 points in a 41-21 win.