Darien’s Mike Neary understands that offseason 7 on 7 is something of a microcosm for true football, except instead of the quarterbacks and wide receivers overshadowing the guards and tackles, the offensive linemen are nowhere to be found.
“The skill guys usually get all the glory, but it was a good chance for us to get some recognition for our hard work,” said Neary, referring to this past weekend’s Berlin Linemen Challenge, where players whose names are usually recognizable only with the aid of a program get their moment in the spotlight.
The other distinguishable feature was the outcome: Darien won its fourth straight title, holding off Southington for the second straight summer by winning the tug of war, the day’s final event.
“All the linemen put in a ton of work and don’t get very much limelight, so the linemen challenge is really a great way to show how hard we worked,” said Neary, who will be moving from right to left tackle and is the only returning starter on a unit that, like the entire Blue Wave team, was hit hard by graduation losses.
Neary won the individual title and set a record in the bench press, with 32 repetitions at 185 pounds.
John Carlozzi, the Blue Wave’s strength and conditioning coach, said the Challenge is a way to break up the routine of the weight room. It is also an event that he said the players look forward to.
“It’s classified as a business trip,” Carlozzi said. “We train all year, we go up there to have fun, compete, bond and we don’t go up there to participate, we go up there to try and win.”
Darien is the two-time defending Class LL champion, but most of the key contributors are getting ready for their first college seasons. Left tackle Andrew Stueber is at Michigan, and linemen like Quinn Fay and Cord Fox, whose outstanding play brought them acclaim that often eludes those not charged with throwing, carrying or catching the ball, have also moved on.
Practices are still a little over a month away, but one gets the sense that the Darien players are already developing a little bit of an attitude because they perceive others believe a drop in performance is inevitable. Given their recent history, it would be beyond foolish to be dismissive of the Blue Wave — or most teams — before the first official training session. With Darien, there is likely more of a curiosity factor because the players who will be on the field for the opening game at Ridgefield right now are mostly unfamiliar to those outside of town.
“We have some young guys who can step up and fill those shoes,” Neary said. “As a group we feel as though the state is sort of sleeping on us. We did graduate a lot and we feel we can really perform on a really high level, and we really want to compete, so the Challenge was the first opportunity for that really.”
Forty teams competed this year in events like the tire flip relay, the heavy bag run, the football sled and an agility course.
“We train right after the state playoffs end,” Carlozzi said. “Usually we want to give them a week off, they want to get right back the next day and it’s Darien High School, so there are 30 kids in the weight room.”
The Challenge has now become an annual rite for the Blue Wave, with many past linemen returning in the role of cheerleaders.
Each team has six participants and two alternates. Tight ends and fullbacks are eligible to compete. This year’s Darien team included Neary, Willy Keating, Mitchell Pryor, Drew Evanchick, Carter Hollis, Bobby Keeney, Ryan Sullivan and Connor Henry. The Blue Wave even entered a second team that defeated six other varsity teams.
“The offensive line is a pretty undersized line this year compared to years past,” Carlozzi said. “Substantially. They’re just very, very strong kids and once they get their feet in the ground and start moving nothing is stopping them.”
Carlozzi, like most strength coaches, is a creature of habit who also likes to stay innovative and on the cutting edge in training regimens. Carlozzi, like his players, seemed to enjoy Saturday’s deviation from the routine.
“There’s no secret that traditional weight training is pretty dull and raw,” he said. “Sets and reps and all that kind of fun stuff does get boring. I’ve got a couple of different ways to try and get them motivated that I do personally with them. It’s nice to go up there and compete and not just go into the weight room.”