Darien Linemen Set Sights On 5th Straight Berlin Challenge Title

Darien strength and conditioning coach John Carlozzi will lead the team’s linemen into this weekend’s Berlin Challenge. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

DARIEN — While their teammates spent the winter in indoor facilities and the last month traveling the area competing in 7 on 7 tournaments, the linemen on the Darien football team have been working behind the scenes going through the same regimen to get ready for the start of a new season.

In a way it is a microcosm of the sport: quarterbacks and receivers drawing attention in front of crowds while the players who block and tackle literally go unnoticed in the weight room.

“Sets, reps, weights, bench press, squats, lunges, floor work, it’s all black and white, boring stuff,” said John Carlozzi, the Blue Wave’s strength and conditioning coach.

That all changes this weekend, when the players whose work in the trenches play a big part in the team’s success get a rare chance in the spotlight. The Blue Wave have been readying themselves for the Berlin Challenge, competing in events like the tire flip relay, the heavy bag run, the football sled and an agility course.

Darien’s Ryan Sullivan works out with the football team at Vibe Fitness. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

Darien has won the title the last four years.

“After the playoff run is done we start preparing,” Carlozzi said. “Everything we do in preparation for the season started on day one, week one. They start preparing for the linemen challenge.”

The players agree that having a formal competition is a welcome break from a mundane yet necessary routine.

“It does make it better,” said Ryan Sullivan, who along with Will Keating are the only returning starters on the offensive line. “There are always those days where you say I don’t want to do this but those are always the days you want to push harder. It’s a pretty big deal because you want to keep the streak going. You don’t want to be the team that loses it.”

While many discount the outcome of 7 on 7 competitions, when the priority is for offensive players to develop timing and rhythm before training camps, perhaps there is a correlation between how the Blue Wave linemen have performed in the summer event and the team’s five straight state championship appearances. Last year Darien won its third title in a row.

“We look forward to it,” Connor Fay said. “It’s a cornerstone in our process. We prepare specifically for it but we know in that preparation for the Challenge it is helping us for the season.”

All-State linebacker Connor Fay will also be starting on the Darien offensive line this season. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

Fay, who earned All-FCIAC and All-State honors at linebacker as a junior, this year will also be starting on the offensive line. He has transitioned between 7 on 7 and getting ready for his first Berlin Challenge.

“It’s really all the same concept,” Fay said. “We have our different things we’re working on but whether it’s the linemen challenge or the New Canaan tournament it’s all baseline preparation for competing for another state championship. We may be doing different stuff but the motivation is all the same.”

Fay said working with Carlozzi, who owns Vibe Fitness, and the other guards, tackles and ends should ease the transition to his increased workload.

“It’s more I’m taking on but it’s more about what spots we need to fill, so if I am going to play the line I am going to bring the same dedication that I bring to linebacker,” Fay said. “The vibe in here is to get as big and strong as is humanly possible. John Carlozzi does an incredible job of doing that with us.”

Will Keating warms up prior to a workout. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

Darien coach Rob Trifone traditionally gives his team a week off after the end of each season. And his players for the past five years have been back lifting two days after the CIAC championship game.

“Coach T always says the first week is optional, you guys can rest up, but everyone’s in the weight room that next Monday morning,” Sullivan said.

Carlozzi said the trip to Berlin is one of the few times the players who open and close holes on both sides of the ball and provide pass protection for the quarterback get their chance to be the center of attention.

Darien strength and conditioning coach John Carlozzi works with a player. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

“This is their 7 on 7. This is big,” Carlozzi said. “This gets them outside doing some different strongman competition stuff. It’s a little bit of mental toughness too. They’ve seen success that has led to five straight state championship appearances. It is kind of an indicator. Hey, Darien is going to be down, Darien’s line is not going to be strong and then Darien wins the Berlin Challenge. That could be an indicator of things to come. That’s one of the big reasons I think why we’re successful.”

Sullivan said his teammates will adopt the same mindset this weekend that they will carry into training camp next month.

“This is the last one as a senior and you want to win it going out,” Sullivan said.

John Carlozzi spots for a Darien player during a training session. (Photo: Mark Conrad)