By Dave Ruden
What a difference five days make.
Thursday morning, the questions looming over Dunning Stadium were whether anyone could touch the New Canaan football team’s inexorable march to an undefeated season and state championship. And whether Darien would get the chance to even participate in the playoffs.
Fast forward to the shifted landscape for Tuesday night’s Class L quarterfinal round kickoffs. The Rams have been humanized from the view they were some kind of mythic machine. The Blue Wave are now viable title contenders.
And in a sense, there has been a perceptual role reversal. New Canaan now has something to prove. And Darien must guard against a letdown.
“It was very sobering,” New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli said of the 28-24 Turkey Bowl loss to Darien. “I think Darien did a good job. Unfortunately, that’s a life lesson you learn. We thought we were going to go 15-0 and not be tested. It was a wakeup call at the right time.”
The Rams, seeded third, now must refocus on going 14-1. League and state titles will be the best way to marginalize a loss to their bitterest rival. The road starts Tuesday night, when they host No. 6 Farmington.
“They were stunned,” Marinelli said of his players, who went from winning by an average of 34.5 points in an 11-0 start to dealing with defeat. “They’re disappointed and we will find out on Tuesday night how we respond. I don’t see them hanging their heads.”
In contrast, if not for being outplayed in the second half in a loss to St. Joseph, the Blue Wave would be unbeaten. They have been more than steady — 3-1 against CIAC Tournament teams — yet the attention received has not been commensurate with their performance.
While the short turnaround certainly is a boon for New Canaan, the Blue Wave, which jumped to the top seed, must contend with coming down from their high, an issue coach Rob Trifone said is a non-issue.
“I think it was a normal reaction where Friday and Saturday their feet were several inches if not feet off the ground,” Trifone said. “In my 35 years of doing this I’ve learned to let them bask in it because you can’t take that away. Today they are more focused. They’ve eased into it if you will. They are totally back on track.”
Trifone was talking early Sunday night from practice at Brien McMahon — “we are getting used to our home field,” the coach said sarcastically — his old address prior to Darien and the site of Tuesday’s game against No. 8 Daniel Hand because, alas, the Blue Wave have no lights on their field.
Here is a good time to take a break to address two popular topics on social media and websites.
Regarding Darien’s lack of lights: from a program standpoint, it is time to catch up with everyone else. But, as several colleagues have pointed out, from a purely selfish media standpoint, we would miss having a nice landing spot for good Saturday afternoon football.
As for New Canaan, the biggest factor for its loss, if you believe the “comments” sections on digital platforms, is the constant changing of uniforms and helmets throughout the year. Reality: being the state’s version of Oregon had nothing to do with the outcome, but it provides added exposure for the critics if you lose. It is a column for another day, but one change per year is probably sufficient (though I do dig the ram horns for the helmets.
Now back to our scheduled commentary.
This will be the Rams’ ninth straight state tournament appearance. They went to the finals six consecutive times starting in 2006, winning titles the first four and losing the last two.
Speaking of Farmington, which is 9-2, Marinelli said, “They’re very athletic. They remind me a little bit of McMahon. You have to be careful you read all your keys because one missed tackle here or there and they’re gone.”
Darien takes on Hand, which started the year with a 50-21 loss at New Canaan but has gone 8-2 since. There are quality wins over North Haven and Fairfield Prep.
“They are very well coached. He’s the Lou Marinelli of the SCC,” Trifone said of the Tigers’ Steve Filippone. “Year in and year out they have great teams. They are very sound. They are mirror images in terms of schemes as New Canaan.”
Trifone expects no Turkey Bowl hangovers.
“The thing I love about this team is they are so mature and they realize this is a fleeting moment and you can’t screw around,” Trifone said. “They are confident and ready for the task at hand.”
In terms of pure talent, New Canaan remains the favorite. Darien is for real. And nobody from these parts would be upset if the two teams, overlapping on twisting roads, find themselves at the same end point: a rematch for the state championship.