When the New Canaan and Darien football teams suffered heavy graduation losses, it was expected they would take a step back to the pack, with schools like Staples, Ridgefield, Trumbull, Greenwich and Trinity Catholic emerging as serious challengers.
It hasn’t happened. Right now New Canaan and Darien appear headed to a Turkey Bowl showdown for the chance to finish as the only undefeated school in the FCIAC during the regular season. The rest are either Class LL schools that are taking turns beating one another, lessening their chances of earning state tournament berths, or in the Crusaders’ case in need of bonus points to compensate for three early losses to larger schools.
The Rams have flourished during their recent run of three straight state titles and seven in the past 10 years with a high-octane offense. Just look at the quarterbacks during the era: Charlie Westfal, Nate Quinn, Turner Baty, Matt Milano, Nick Cascione and Michael Collins.
And when you look at this year’s team, which is 6-0 after Friday’s 40-16 win over Greenwich, the first two players you probably think of are either Ryan O’Connell, who leads the Rams with 10 touchdowns, or Drew Pyne, the freshman quarterback who has won the starting job and improved each week.
But the real key to the Rams’ success has been a defense that has drawn comparisons to the unbeaten 2008 team, which allowed just 106 points in 13 games.
So far New Canaan has given up just under 11 points a game. The defensive front has excelled both against the run and maintaining a steady pass rush. The linebacking unit, with James Freyre and Grant Morse, flies to the ball. And the secondary already has 17 interceptions, with Tommy Root, Jackson Appelt and O’Connell leading the way.
The New Canaan players said they were more ornery for the Greenwich game because of some bulletin-board material that provided extra inspiration. According to O’Connell, a quote by former Rams offensive coordinator and current Cardinals coach John Marinelli questioning the strength of New Canaan’s schedule was a source of motivation.
“I hate to say it but that was absolutely a little locker room material,” O’Connell said. “We put that quote that up on the wall. Something we said on the offense is we go against the best defense in the state every day in practice. So if people want to say we’re untested, we go five days a week against the best defense in the state. We took that personally.”
Morse agreed, noting that being surrounded by so many good players on the line and in the backfield has made it easier for the linebackers to flourish.
“We’ve been progressing really well,” Morse said. “As a team, as a defense. The defensive line dominated up front. We have a good secondary behind us. It frees us up to make some plays.”
Darien’s Cone Of Silence
How does a town school system overshadow its No. 1-in-the-state high school football program? By continuing a pattern of a lack of transparency any time it has an issue in the sports department.
The latest example came last week, when Blue Wave coach Rob Trifone was handed an additional two-week penalty on top of the two weeks he had already served for slapping a player on the helmet.
Openness when dealing with damage control in Darien reminds one of the Cone of Silence on the old comedy series Get Smart. Feckless.
The school district sent out a two-paragraph press release indicating that a new campus security video was the reason for the extended suspension. Because of the appearance of double jeopardy, Trifone was receiving the punishment but the school system received the brunt of criticism.
What was on the tape that the school system did not already know? How thorough was the discovery process? Is there more to the situation that is being covered up?
We will never know. Perhaps Trifone’s actions were deserving of a month-long suspension, but by being so opaque and again playing the “personnel-matter” card, all we are left to do is guess with the many rumors that are floating around. Witnesses have said Trifone was trying to prevent a player from getting ejected rather than, say, reacting to an on-field mistake.
If the members of the Darien school system want an education, they should look how their counterparts in Greenwich handled a much more controversial issue, the use of the word “Hitler” to designate a shift call in a freshman game against Trumbull. Greenwich school officials got right out in front of the situation, issued apologies, addressed it internally and brought in a member from the state’s Anti-Defamation League office to meet with students as well as the football team.
The Greenwich school system earned praise for the way it dealt with the issue.
The situation in Darien is not the same. Neither is the way the school system handled it.
1. Darien (6-0). Darien’s penultimate game with Staples lost much luster after the Wreckers’ 42-7 loss to Ridgefield. The Blue Wave can probably start game-planning for the Turkey Bowl now.
2. New Canaan (6-0). Drew Pyne got off to a slow start on Friday but became more confident and effective as the game went on. He is on the perfect team for a freshman quarterback: he isn’t being asked to win games, just to manage them effectively. Which Pyne has been doing.
3. Ridgefield (4-2). Who can figure out Class LL in the FCIAC, let alone the state? Shane Palmer put on a show for the Tigers. Question: Will Drew Fowler be returning to quarterback or does Ridgefield coach Kevin Callahan keep him at receiver and let Greg Gatto continue running the offense? Callahan made it sound Monday as if both options are on the table.
4. Greenwich (4-2). The Cardinals stayed close with New Canaan for a half, but the Rams made a number of smart adjustments to open up the offense, which led to four straight second-half scores. Greenwich’s Nov. 11 game with Ridgefield may prove a play-in for the state playoffs.
5. Trumbull (4-2). The Eagles’ offense has been held below 32 points just once this year. That streak will be tested in two weeks in what is likely a must-win game against New Canaan.