By Dave Ruden
MILFORD — When Cole Harris stepped on the field as a freshman, New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli had two initial impressions.
First, Harris was very good.
Second, Harris knew he was good.
“I almost killed him a couple of times, Marinelli said with a laugh. “I still want to sometimes. He’s still a little cocky right now but he backs it up.”
Players who make big plays are given more rope. And Harris, the Rams’ senior linebacker, is a playmaker. He was responsible for the biggest one Saturday afternoon, as New Canaan pitched its second straight shutout in the CIAC playoffs, defeating North Haven, 17-0, in the Class L semifinals.
The Rams (13-1) will return to the championship game, after a one-year absence, for the seventh time in eight years, facing Darien next Saturday afternoon in a rematch of the 2008 title game, and with the chance to avenge their only loss this season.
“It feels great,” Harris said. “I’m always happy when we play Darien.”
On a defense loaded with stars, Harris has a penchant for finding the spotlight, and such was the case on Saturday.
The Rams were holding a 10-0 lead in a tight defensive struggle. The Indians, whose single-wing attack is both a refreshing throwback and stark contrast to the Rams’ offense, had missed an opportunity to score before halftime and went three-and-out on their first possession of the second half.
The next time they got the ball, they were executing their game plan to perfection, keeping the ball on the ground and eating up clock. They had driven 67 yards on 15 plays in seven minutes, converting twice on third down and once on fourth down.
Now, North Haven was facing 3rd and 7 on the Rams’ 13. It was a passing situation, which is the Indians’ kryptonite. Quarterback Mike Halloran faded back. Soon he saw the uniform No. 2 coming into clearer focus, wrapping him up before Halloran was forced to intentionally ground the ball.
New Canaan got the ball back one play later and went on a clinching drive, with Morgan Carson’s touchdown run with 7:34 left essentially the knockout blow to a team constructed to play with leads, not overcome them.
“You knew they had to pull out and go deep in their playbook,” Harris said. “You can’t really run the ball on 3rd and something like that. We knew they were going to pass it. It was more of a read thing. I didn’t really have anyone to cover.”
Actually, for a player who came into the day with a team-high 143 tackles — 16.5 for losses — 4 sacks, 3 interceptions, 3 fumble recoveries, 5 touchdowns, a safety and a blocked punt, it was more than a read thing.
“Somehow Cole is always around the ball and makes a big play,” Marinelli said. “He’s done it all year long so it doesn’t surprise me. Nothing he does surprises me because he’s that kind of a player. He’s always around the ball. He’s always making things happen.”
Asked for an explanation why Harris is seemingly magnetized to the football, Marinelli said, “Certain kids just have what they talk about ‘it.’ He’s had it since he was a freshman. He’s a team captain, he’s the team spokesman. There’s nothing that scares him. He’s a wonderful, wonderful player.”
And the Rams did a wonderful, wonderful job of bending and not breaking. North Haven had some long runs early with an offense that is impossible for opponents to simulate in practice.
“They definitely have a higher level of execution than our scouts could ever replicate,” Harris said.
Marinelli said he irked some of his players when he suggested during his pregame speech that North Haven was likely to score on its first possession but not to worry, it was part of the acclimation process.
And it took some getting used to the Indians’ well-executed style. But after giving up 222 yards rushing in the first half, the Rams allowed just 52 the rest of the way. North Haven was 0 for 11 passing.
The Indians had a chance of making it a one-score game before halftime when they drove to the Rams’ 6 but failed to convert a fourth-down pass.
Then Harris took their final chance away.
“If they scored there it would have been a whole different game,” Harris said. “ We really shut them down there. They felt they had the momentum and we took it right away from them.”
And now that talented, confident freshman gets to play his final game against his school’s biggest rival, with the chance to both win a CIAC title and erase this season’s one blemish.
Said Harris, “I would rather win the state championship than the Turkey Bowl.”