By Dave Ruden
Early September seems more like five years ago as it relates to the perception and progress made by the Darien football team.
With few recognizable names returning and a quarterback — Silas Wyper — getting attention more for his marketable name than his resume, the Blue Wave were expected to be a top-of-the-second-tier team in the FCIAC this fall.
Instead, since a loss to St. Joseph in the fourth week, Darien has run off eight straight wins — half against teams still alive in the state playoffs and, on Tuesday, in the quarterfinal round.
The Blue Wave, the top seed in Class L, will meet No. 4 Middletown in Saturday’s semifinals.
“It’s a very, very special team for sure,” Darien coach Rob Trifone said. “It is interesting. On paper everyone thought we’d be a solid team, but 11-1 on Dec. 6? I don’t think anyone thought that.”
If there is someone who can best appreciate the Blue Wave’s path, it is Ridgefield coach Kevin Callahan. The Tigers suffered a hard-fought 19-14 loss to Darien on Oct. 26 to fall to 5-2, their postseason hopes seemingly finished.
They won their final four games of the regular season and got a little help to sneak into the 8th and final spot in the Class LL field, then upset unbeaten Newtown, 35-33, in Tuesday’s quarterfinals, withstanding a late rally and a failed two-point conversion in the final seconds that would have tied the game.
“We’ve gotten better each day as the season has gone on, each week,” Callahan said. “This is a very easy group to work with.”
Ridgefield will face No. 4 Southington in Saturday’s semifinal round in a tournament where three of the lower seeds won first-round games in what was viewed as a wide open and unpredictable field to begin with.
The Tigers have essentially been playing elimination games since the loss to Darien, and their experience was evident against Newtown, which had a great season and provided a positive outlet for a town still grieving with a little more over a week before the anniversary of one of the nation’s worst tragedies.
“We went out for the game thinking the kids were in a good place and playing at a good level,” Callahan said of his team jumping out to a 28-7 lead. “They started to come back in the third quarter and we knew it was not like they were going to roll over. At the end they went for two and we were able to change some personnel around and get some pressure on the play. They are a very good team, it is a tough place to play and they were within a week of (the anniversary) of Sandy Hook, so it was emotional.”
The Blue Wave’s play has been all the more remarkable because of the level of competition they have played. In addition to the win over Ridgefield, their last three victories have come against North Haven, which is playing New Canaan in the semifinals on Saturday, the Rams on Thanksgiving, and Daniel Hand on Tuesday in the quarterfinals.
Darien came from behind in all three games, needing a late drive to defeat New Canaan and a last-second field goal against Hand.
“The drive down took a lot of moxie,” Trifone said of the Hand game. “It took a lot of character. It is no question they have the moxie and character. Against Middletown we will see if the ball bounces the right way.”
Middletown is a run-heavy team that is led by quarterback Dario Highsmith, who earlier this week was named the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year.
“We have to be able to put them in second and long and third and long situations,” Trifone said. “When they are in running downs, they are so big and Highsmith is so big they can get three and four yards at a clip. If we can get them off schedule it makes it easier. You have to get them to do things they don’t want to do.”
Along with St. Joseph and New Canaan, four of the remaining 16 teams are from the FCIAC. Callahan said that is no coincidence.
“I really think, and it is a cliche, but coming out of our league prepares us so well,” Callahan said. “Southington is a good team but this isn’t David vs. Goliath. I think it is going to be a close game.”