Who needs an FCIAC championship?
Seriously. When was the last time the league has seen a bigger football game with no title on the line than what will happen Thursday morning at Dunning Field, when Darien and New Canaan meet for the 86th time in what has become the state’s best high school sports rivalry? The lines for tickets, which sold out in minutes, in both towns on Monday should be an indication.
With no longer any reason at the moment to move the game to Boyle Stadium, which was also unavailable, the crowd will be a little less than half of the possible 10,000 that might have attended. For everyone else, it is stream at home.
The last time this game featured the state’s two top-ranked teams was in 2008, when the Rams posted a sweep to win both the conference and Class MM championships. It was the middle of a run when New Canaan won eight straight Thanksgiving games. Darien is now riding a four-game winning streak, though it also lost to the Rams in the 2014 state final.
The last two years, with the FCIAC title on the line, the game has been played in Stamford. Now it returns to partisan territory.
Tangibly, what is at stake this year for the winner is the chance to remain unbeaten and clinch the No. 1 seed in its state tournament class.
The Turkey Bowl keeps getting bigger and bigger, except for the coaches, who keep experiencing, much to their delight, football’s version of Groundhog Day, with revolving outcomes.
“I haven’t felt any difference in the buildup except that ticket sales are limited,” Darien coach Rob Trifone said. “It has kind of created a frenzy in both communities. Outside of that, the last three years now it has been undefeated vs. undefeated.”
We in the media should have learned our lesson by now. The headline from my preseason preview, posted just over two months ago: “In A Season Of Uncertainty, Promising Pack Targeting Darien And New Canaan.”
We got the targeting part right, because that is the easy part. We tried to convince ourselves that this would be the year when the tides changed, in large part because both Darien and New Canaan graduated so many players. The names of the new starters for the most part were unfamiliar, so we thought this could be a man-bites-dog fall. Ridgefield, Trumbull, Greenwich, Trinity Catholic, St. Joseph, here was the opening for at least one of them to change the narrative. And all have been fine outposts.
But Darien and New Canaan still occupy the penthouse, and with the way their youth programs are attracting big numbers and spinning out talent, who knows when that might change.
New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli remains the loudest advocate for the return of an FCIAC championship game — the entire conference is hopeful that the climate may change in the not-too-distant future for No. 51. When Marinelli says Thursday’s winner will be the mythical champion, it is beyond dispute.
There are plenty of other storylines:
— Darien has scored the most points in the league (393) and New Canaan has given up the fewest (84). Two great lines will go at it in the trenches. Blue Wave quarterback Brian Peters will try and solve the Rams’ Ryan O’Connell-led secondary.
“Their defense is incredible,” Trifone said. “We have to be able to move the ball and not go three and out, punt and give them the field position advantage.”
The Rams had a no-name defense in August, but have seen a disparate group of seniors and underclassmen coalesce into a unit that Marinelli says might even be better than the one in 2008 that is usually held up as the standard-bearer.
“Absolutely,” Marinelli said. “In 2008 it was a little different but very good. They won games but tight games. They pulled them out at the end. This team is different and we will find out on Thursday because we’ve stopped a lot of teams from scoring. This is the highest scoring team in the FCIAC.”
— Overshadowed, the Darien defense has given up just 14 points a game. This will be the first Turkey Bowl for Drew Pyne, the Rams’ freshman quarterback whose steady play and, most of all, humility has seen the talk about all the college offers that trumpeted his arrival drop from the dialogue.
“For a kid to come into a school like New Canaan and to be able to get along as a freshman with the upperclassmen, who have really taken a liking to him and taken him under their wing, it says an awful lot about the type of kid he is,” Marinelli said. “You never know what to expect. I thought there might be some bumps in the road but is has been seamless. He’s worked hard and figured it all out and he’s learning.”
Even Trifone said Pyne may turn out to be the X-factor.
“They have a lot of kids who can hurt you,” Trifone said. “And of course the quarterback. The quarterback hurts you with his feet. As great as a thrower as he is, which he is, you have try to contain him because he makes it happen, especially in situations where you need him. Third and 15 and he pulls the ball down and scrambles for 20.”
Red vs. Blue has become FCIAC football’s version of an election, only it happens annually and the candidates decide.
Unlike in 2008 and 2013-14, there will be no rematch.
No Boyle Stadium.