By Dave Ruden
NEW CANAAN — Rob Trifone started believing what others couldn’t at about 4:15 Wednesday afternoon.
The Darien High School football team had just finished its final practice for the following day’s annual Turkey Bowl with New Canaan, unbeaten, ranked No. 1 in the state and seemingly unbeatable all fall.
The Blue Wave players gathered in the office of Trifone, their head coach. First the seniors spoke, then the coaches.
“When we came out of that I knew we could win,” Trifone said Thursday afternoon, moments after Darien did just that, a surprising though not completely startling 28-24 win in what is arguably the state’s best rivalry. “The talk was about football and family. There were no Xs and Os.”
The Blue Wave (11-1) jumped from the fourth into the No. 1 position in the Class L rankings, an improbable regular-season-ending position three months ago, if not three hours before Thursday’s kickoff.
Truth be told — and no one from either side voiced a dissenting opinion — Darien outplayed its biggest rival for most of the morning.
For the second straight game, New Canaan quarterback Nick Cascione threw a long touchdown pass, to Alex LaPolice, on the team’s first play, covering 80 yards and aided by a beautiful block by Jack Gilio.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Rams’ Zach Allen, a junior who earlier tied the team record for career sacks, made a spectacular play to strip Darien quarterback Silas Wyper and went 33 yards to give the Rams (11-1) a 24-21 lead.
It was a play that seemed to turn the game around after Darien was quickly forced to punt.
But the Blue Wave defense held and Wyper led the team on a 13-play, 66-yard drive that started with 7:48 remaining and ate up all but the final 58 seconds. There were three third-down conversions and one on fourth down, a roughing the passer penalty on an incomplete pass.
“This team never gives up,” Wyper said. “That’s why it is so great. The camaraderie on this team is unparalleled to any team I’ve ever been on, and if you ask the coaches they would say the same thing. I think it showed through on that final drive. We made plays on third down, fourth down, you name it.”
The Rams still had one final chance, and you don’t want to give Cascione any chances. He has not been sharp the last two weeks since returning from a concussion, but all the senior does is win.
He almost pulled off the rally, moving the team from its own 21-yard line down to the Darien 9. When his fourth-down pass was broken up in the corner of the end zone, the state football landscape had shifted.
“They deserve all the credit,” New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli said. “They came in and took it to us on our own field. They had a tremendous plan for us.”
Darien has been one of the state’s most interesting teams. It came into the season something of a mystery because of personnel turnover. Everyone knew Nick Lombardo, but few had heard of Wyper or defensive lineman Mark Evanchick, the sophomore who has had a monstrous season.
The Blue Wave were respected because of their past, but not mentioned much to be a factor on a larger scale. Except for being outplayed in the second half against St. Joseph — whose only two losses are to New Canaan — Darien has been perfect.
Still, its Q rating never really jumped until a come-from-behind win at North Haven two weeks ago.
“We try to play mistake-free football,” Wyper said. “We are ground them, pound them and people don’t give us credit for that. I think North Haven thought they were going to kick our butts because we’re preppy kids from Fairfield County. We have a lot of grit.”
It has shown. It was one reason why, though heavily favored, no one was considering this a cakewalk for New Canaan en route to an eventual coronation.
“The odds were stacked against us,” Trifone said. “New Canaan is one heck of a football team. I don’t think too many people outside of our family gave us a chance.”
So what is next? No one is foolish enough to downgrade the Rams. A perfect season is off the table, but there is too much talent not to even still consider them the Class L frontrunner. Who knows, maybe the loss helps them over the next two weeks.
By the same token, the Blue Wave are no novelty. Class L is loaded, but as Thursday proved, it is not unreasonable to ask: Why not Darien?
“We definitely had a chip on our shoulder,” Wyper said. “We are peaking at the right time.”
There could even be a rematch in the offering on Dec. 14 at Central Connecticut. No one from these parts would be disappointed.
“That would be great,” Wyper said of the prospect. “This is incredible. The respect we will get from this win, and the momentum. And it’s the Turkey Bowl.”