When Greenwich takes the field at Boyle Stadium Saturday morning for the Class LL championship, it will see a New Canaan team more dangerous than in their prior meeting.
After the Cardinals’ 42-14 rout exactly two months ago, the Rams had given up an average of nearly 20 points. Their rushing average: 82 yards. It was a big factor in a 3-2 start that left them on the verge of ending a run of 13 straight state playoff appearances.
Since then, the Rams have won seven straight games. Opponents have scored an average of just under 14 points. The Rams are gaining 180 yards per game on the ground, a number that inflates to 230 during two state playoff games.
Instead of trying to get into the playoffs, New Canaan now is focused on winning its fifth CIAC title in six years.
“I think the turnaround for this team has been our work ethic in practice,” said Jack Conley. “We realize the hard fact we didn’t want this to end and to stay together as a family. Coach (Lou) Marinelli always talks about that. It has been playoffs since week five when we lost to Greenwich. It shows now that we are here and playing for a state championship.”
The defense and ground game have been the two biggest areas for New Canaan, and the connective tissue has been Conley and Jack Stewart, a pair of 6-7 bookends who have gone from playing primarily on the offensive line to going both ways, leaving the field only for a brief rest or at the end of blowouts.
Discussing the greater use of Conley and Stewart on defense, Marinelli said, “That’s nice to technically think I did that but the bottom line is how many times do you have two Division I linemen? So I am going to get everything I can out of them while they’re still here.”
Conley and Stewart are two of the four players on the team that have made commitments to top FBS schools. Conley and Stewart announced their decisions, to Boston College and Michigan, respectively, on the same day. They were joined by quarterback Drew Pyne, who gave a verbal to Notre Dame. They were later followed by linebacker Garrett Braden, who is headed to Rice.
“The D1 players, you can have 22 D1 players but if those guys aren’t playing together it is going to be a hard situation no matter what,” Marinelli said. “I think those D1 players have kind of melded into a single team with the other kids, and I think we are a far more cohesive team than we were in the beginning.”
Conley and Stewart, like the team, may have had their most complete effort in Sunday’s 38-7 state semifinal win over Fairfield Prep. The Rams dominated on both sides. But the two linemen were quick to point out the midseason turnaround had been a collaborative effort.
“It’s not one single person you can shout out. The whole defense just clicking altogether. Coach Silvestri always talks about it’s really a puzzle,” said Conley, referring to defensive coordinator Chris Silvestri. “Everyone is their own puzzle piece, but it’s their job to complete the puzzle.”
Stewart said the Rams, for the second straight year, after losing their opener to St. Joseph before Greenwich, went into the bye week knowing they almost certainly needed to win out to extend their season beyond Thanksgiving.
“I think after these two big losses we had this year we grew up as a team,” Stewart said. “We became a different team, our defense especially. It has really been stepping up. That’s allowing our offense to step up too. It has been huge for the defense.”
There have been a number of players who have improved as the season has gone on. Will Rechtermann was a leader in the secondary, but that unit has grown tremendously with the play of Chris Canet and Drew Guida.
And running back JR Moore, with the support of Christian Sweeney, has become a tremendous asset of late. Moore leads the team with 623 yards rushing but 364 have some in the last three games.
“JR, his last couple games have been incredible,” Stewart said. “Our team has been getting a lot of rushing yards a game and he’s been stepping up each game. He’s been following his blocks and making a huge difference.”
The rest of the line features Harrison Skyrm, Connor Volpe and David Siegel. One of the key matchups on Saturday will be how the group shapes up against Greenwich’s defense, which has five All-FCIAC players. New Canaan has the edge in size and the Cardinals the advantage in speed.
Stewart said there has been a fringe benefit to the improved rushing numbers.
“The whole O-line loves run blocking,” Stewart said. “You get to drive a guy five, 10 yards down the field. There’s no better feeling.”
With one game left and a state title on the line, don’t expect many plays where Conley and Stewart are on the sideline.
“It’s fine. We’re both able to do it, we both love it,” Conley said. “We just want to both be on the field any way we can.”