FCIAC Football Preview: With A Number Of State Playoff Contenders, Is This The Year Of The Ram?

Sophomore quarterback Drew Pyne will look to lead New Canaan to a fifth straight state title. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

It would be difficult for the FCIAC to surpass last year’s distinctions. Darien, New Canaan and Ridgefield, in order, gave it the top three teams in the final state poll.

St. Joseph joined the trio in CIAC finals, while Greenwich was a fifth playoff team. It ranked as one of the best years in conference history.

All five schools will again be in the postseason hunt, but there again seems to be a logjam amongst the contenders. Each has a difficult schedule to navigate, and head to head meetings could be tipping points.

New Canaan and Darien will make runs at, respectively, their fifth and third straight CIAC championships. The Blue Wave are riding a 25-game winning streak.

We will learn a lot this weekend, as arguably the six best teams in the league will be facing off.

If there is a league-wide trend, it would be uncertainty on the offensive line. Few teams are not in a remodeling mode.

One of the exceptions is New Canaan, which is formidable on both lines. For that reason, plus a number of key returning starters at other positions, we are making the Rams our preseason No. 1 choice.

Top 5

1. New Canaan

Rams coach Lou Marinelli chuckled when offered the prospect that, based on the hype, his team may be ranked No. 1 in the opening state writers’ poll later this week.

“After Friday we will probably be down to eighth,” Marinelli said, referring to a tough season-opening game against St. Joseph that could make him the state’s all-time leader in wins.

There is a lot to like — love, actually — about this New Canaan team. Line play on both sides should be an absolute strength, quarterback Drew Pyne as a sophomore is emerging as a team leader and talent abounds. A team with four straight state titles is also not without motivation after losing to Darien on Thanksgiving the past four years.

Marinelli said that facing the Class M runner-up Cadets on opening night also guards against swelled heads as previews trumpeting his team appear this week.

“We just have to not get caught up in what you read and what people are saying,” Marinelli said. “It is better than facing a weaker team and not having someone good until week two, three or four.”

Pyne is coming off a strong freshman season.

“He’s a year older, he’s stronger, there is greater arm strength and he has gotten better,” Marinelli said. “He’s working his way into being a voice that will be heard.”

Owen Shinn is the running back, while Quintin O’Connell, the team’s leading receiver a year ago, is the most dangerous threat heading a deep unit that includes Justin Greco, Patrick Metzger and Wyatt Wilson.

In Jack Conley and Jack Stewart, the Rams’ have a pair of 280-pound dominating offensive tackles. They will be joined on the line by guards Max Holmberg and Seamus Ohora and Kyle McDonald at center.

The defense is equally intimidating, with Garrett Braden and Kyle Karr on the outside up front, and Nick Potter, Ohora and Stewart in the middle. Grant Morse and Charlie Hane will be at linebacker, with Sean Knight, Will Rechtermann, Nico Savini and Jake Ciancio in the secondary.

“We have some holes to fill so we will have to see where we are,” Marinelli said.

Where most expect Marinelli and his players to end up is with a fifth straight state title. Friday night’s game against St. Joseph should be telling.

“They’re good,” Marinelli said. “I never remember an easy game against them.”

Brian Minicus gives Darien experience on both sides of the ball. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

2. Darien

Expectations vary statewide about the two-time Class LL defending Blue Wave. There are those who wonder if graduation losses on both lines will sink the team down a notch — or even further — in the league standings. Then there is the argument that counters with four words: Hey, this is Darien.

The changes on the line, especially defensively, are dramatic, but Darien coach Rob Trifone has seemed pretty confident during the preseason.

“We’ve looked fine in scrimmages,” Trifone said. “We have a bunch of hard-working kids.”

It may be that line play was at such a phenomenal level a year ago that even a dropoff could still make both units among the state’s best. That would be a scary proposition, because the Blue Wave are loaded with weapons and have six of their seven linebacker and secondary starters returning.

Overshadowed this summer is the transition to Jack Joyce at quarterback. He is less of a pocket presence than Brian Peters and Timmy Graham the last three years, but adds an element that excites Trifone.

“Jack may be the fastest quarterback I’ve ever had the pleasure of coaching,” Trifone said. “I’ve had a lot more drop-back types but I have had some runners. You’re not going to see a lot of change but there will be subtle changes that will include Jack running the ball.”

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Mike Neary, Will Keating and Connor Henry will anchor the offensive line, joined by Ryan Sullivan and Bobby Keeney, while the Blue Wave have riches in playmakers, from versatile weapons like Nick Green, Max Green and Brian Minicus, running back Mitch Pryor and receivers Patrick Burke, Tyler Herget and Peter Bredahl.

The defensive line has Neary joined by Drew Evanchick, John Lochtefeld and Christian Evans. Last year’s group was the key factor during the state playoffs. Connor Fay, Max Green and Kevin Grune are the linebackers, with Connor Tienken, Pryor, Minicus and Herget in the secondary.

Some close to the program have said this senior class has the chance to play at a level similar to the ones that helped produce back-to-back undefeated seasons. The Blue Wave will find out right away with Friday’s Class LL final rematch against Ridgefield.

“I like this group a lot,” Trifone said.

Matt Lombardo is one of Ridgefield’s returning offensive weapons. (Photo: Matt Dewkett)

3. Ridgefield

The assumption after last season, when the Tigers used a great postseason run to reach the Class LL final, lost to Darien and finished ranked third in the state in the final poll, was that a big fall was coming. It was reasonable given that offensive weapons like quarterback Drew Fowler, all-purpose back Shane Palmer and receivers Chris Longo and Collin Lowe had moved on.

Now it is looking like the Tigers are due for a slip, not a dive, and with a veteran defense in good shape to make a run at returning to the state playoffs.

Nine starters are back from a defense that gave up an average of just 21 points a game to begin with in a pass-happy league. Noah Isaacson is a dominant linebacker, John Schneider is immovable up front and Luke Gaydos is the leader in the secondary. Those are just a few of the big names.

Despite Graduation Losses, Optimism Abounds At Ridgefield

Greg Gatto, who saw time at quarterback when Fowler was injured, is back and a more-than-able passer. Matt Lombardo is a veteran receiver, and he will be joined by Jackson Mitchell, a junior getting Division I looks and the preseason favorite for breakout player of the year.

If the offensive line delivers and a complementary ground game forms, there is no reason why the Tigers cannot be playing football in December again. A big test comes in Friday’s opener, a rematch against Darien.

“We’re excited about what’s coming up,” coach Kevin Callahan said. “Clearly there is a lot of turnover, it’s a different team but there’s a lot of pride with these guys in terms of what we can do and hopefully we can live up to the expectations we’ve set for ourselves.”

4. St. Joseph

The Cadets could be a threat to winning the Class S title, after dropping from M, where it reached the final a year ago. It could also be a leading contender for the title of best team not to make the postseason.

Much of that could be known by late afternoon on Oct. 14, following a game against Ridgefield. By the midseason point, St. Joseph will also have played New Canaan — in Friday’s opener — and Darien, a pair of state champions. It is perhaps the most difficult start for any team in the state, and a win will be needed to avoid having no margin for error the rest of the way.

St. Joseph Again Reloading For State Playoff Run

St. Joseph has one of the best 1-2 running back-wide receiver tandems in Jaden Shirden and Jared Mallozzi. David Summers takes over at quarterback. The Cadets lost a lot on defense but have some strong pieces back. Line play, usually a given with the program, could dictate success.

5. Greenwich

The Cardinals reached the Class LL playoffs in coach John Marinelli’s second season, mostly by outscoring opponents. Too often they were victimized by giving up the big play.

“We’re focusing on playing good defense, stopping the run,” Marinelli said. “Last year I think we were top in the league at stopping the run, but we gave up too many passing yards.”

Many of the leading tacklers have graduated, and a theme for this season, with a small senior class but large numbers, is how quickly newcomers can contribute.

Scoring is never a problem with a Marinelli-coached team, and he has a strong-armed quarterback in Gavin Muir, a player he compared to former New Canaan star Michael Collins in terms of mental toughness.

A good part of the offense is gone with the graduation of Kevin Iobbi, but the Cardinals are loaded at wide receiver — 12-deep, Marinelli said — with Henry Saleeby and Jeremiah Harris.

Saturday’s opener with Trumbull is important: with a win the Cardinals, except for New Canaan and Ridgefield, right now look like they could be the favorite in their remaining games.

“We are young and have to make sure we fight through that inexperience a little bit,” Marinelli said.

Norwalk is counting on the explosiveness of receiver AJ Hall. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

Keep An Eye On

6. Trumbull

The Eagles are a bit of a mystery team at this point. Last year they went 7-3 to finish on the cusp of a state playoff berth. All three losses were to teams that qualified for the postseason. A resounding Thanksgiving win over St. Joseph was Trumbull’s keepsake.

Many of the top offensive starters have graduated. Markeese Woods, dangerous carrying the ball, catching it out of the backfield and especially as a returner on special teams, is the biggest threat. Highly touted junior quarterback Colton Nicholas has eased the loss of Johnny McElroy.

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Coach Bob Maffei likes his new corp of receivers and feels the defense will be improved. Saturday’s season opener against Greenwich, like last year’s game with Ridgefield, will be a tone-setter, especially with New Canaan, Darien and St. Joseph on the horizon. This appears to be a team that should again be in the postseason chase, looking this time at finishing on the right side of qualification.

7. Wilton

All the talk this preseason has been about picking up from a year ago, when the Warriors won three of their final four games to complete a 7-3 season.

The loss of transfer Will Litton is a blow, but the Warriors should be aggressive on defense and expect to continue their trademark running attack behind Harvey Alexander and Kyle Phillips. Brian Calabrese will be the quarterback, while Robbie Hermann is a strong two-way player.

Wilton Looking To Build Off Of Last Season’s Success

“If we can stay healthy and we can do some things on defense, because that’s where we lost the most, I think we can be competitive and I think with some of the experience we have returning I think we will be in every game,” coach Bruce Cunningham said.

8. Staples

The Wreckers have been saying the same mantra as most of the rest of the league: offensive line, offensive line, offensive line. They lost all five starters, and have to rebuild a unit that likely will be the key to their success.

Coach Marce Petroccio is high on the rest of the team. He feels there are more weapons than in recent years, with Harris Levi set to handle the bulk of the rushing. Danny Thompson is the quarterback. The defense is unproved but has the potential to be a strength.

Levi Ready To Take On Bigger Role For Staples Football Team

Staples was 5-1 a year ago and in the race before ending with four losses to eventual state playoff teams by a 130-34 margin. There is the chance to get off to a good start but the schedule gets difficult as the year goes on. Given the composition of the roster, that is probably a preferable format.

“Here’s what I know, this is a tight, together group with great chemistry,” Petroccio said. “They come to practice every day and work their tails off. I think if we can get our offensive line to play up to their potential than we can make some noise.”

9. Westhill

Last year the Vikings’ strength was on defense, but they graduated three All-FCIAC players. Now their strength appears to be on the other side of the ball: there are nine starters back on offense. New quarterback AJ Laccona has two great receiving threats, Noldylens Metayer and Wyklend Turenne. The entire offensive line is back.

It is no wonder that the Vikings are getting talked up around the league as a team that can make a leap in the standings. With their schedule, a seven-win season is a realistic goal.

“We’re happy with the way we worked in the offseason. The kids bought into the weight training program we started three years ago and they are reaping the benefits,” coach Frank Marcucio said. “If we can get 75 percent of the defense we got last year and improve our offense by about 50 percent we should have a pretty good season.”

10. Norwalk

The Bears have the potential to be a league sleeper. Receiver AJ Hall is one of the state’s top receivers, a game breaker. Marlon Brown will be a boon to the ground game, but really stands out at linebacker, leading the defense. There is good speed.

So what will end up tipping the scales? The growth of sophomore quarterback Ryan Gordon for one. The improvement on defense. Navigating the middle of the schedule.

Brown Ready For A Breakout Season At Norwalk

It is not impossible, if all breaks right, for the Bears to be a 6- or 7-win team.

Harris Levi is counting on spending more time in the end zone for Staples. (Photo: Ellie Kravetz)

Rest Of The Pack

Bridgeport Central. The Hilltoppers have a number of seniors on their roster as they look to build on a 2-8 finish. One of their better players is Rodny Bonhomme, who creates trouble at defensive end.

“Right now we have a great team attitude and we hope to improve on what we did last year,” coach Mike Farrell said. “The work ethic has been great, we’ve got some guys this year with experience, which should help us.”

Danbury. The Hatters are looking to change course after three wins the past two years. Diante Vines takes over at quarterback, and the rushing attack will be led by Solomon James and Fabio de Olivera.

“We’re very excited,” coach Alex Trasacco said. “We have great leadership, great attitude around and trying to come up with something to hang our hat on. We’ve come up with something called ‘Fear the Veer.’ We’re going to run triple to death. We’ve put a lot of things in.”

Fairfield Ludlowe. There has been a renewed spirit around the Falcons since the arrival of Darien offensive coordinator Mitch Ross as the new coach. It will take time for him to implement his system and get the numbers up, so achievement this fall may be measured beyond the standings.

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Not that Ludlowe is using setting a foundation as an excuse for its performance. Josh Evans takes over at quarterback, and one of his targets will be Ethan Beri. Will Parisi is one of the defensive leaders.

“It’s going to be a different year,” Ross said. “It should be fun and exciting for all of us. We’ve really come a long, long way. We are getting better every day.”

Fairfield Warde. Injuries have hobbled the Mustangs the last two seasons. They were a combined 1-7 in the first four weeks.

This fall Warde hopes to get off to a better start. It will be led by linebacker/running backs Tyler Llewellyn and Jack Curtis, and defensive end/tight ends Jake Hios and Joe Gjinaj.

Coach Duncan DellaVolpe said he feels the Mustangs will cause teams trouble this season if they can stay healthy.

Brien McMahon. Coming of a winless season, the Senators are counting on their returning seniors to lead a turnaround. They include quarterback Chris Druin, linemen Cam Kelly and Peter Ripperger, guard/linebacker Nick Marsan and wide receiver Justin Forde.

A hot start will be difficult: McMahon opens with Wilton, Darien and Staples.

“We have a tough schedule the first three weeks and then we get to the middle of the season and hope to make a little more noise once we get to November,” coach A.J. Albano said.

Stamford. The Black Knights are hoping stability off the field will lead to improvement on it as coach Jamar Greene was free of any concerns about his status and could solely focus on making his team better this offseason.

Mikey Riddle is a playmaker with the ball and in the secondary, while Brendan Fahey is one of the team’s defensive leaders. Matt Doyle will be employed in a variety of roles.

The Black Knights showed off some good athleticism at summer 7 on 7 camps. Greene is hopeful.

“It was great to have a full offseason with spring football and no interruptions so we got a leg up there,” Greene said. “We’ve got a lot of guys returning who saw good time on the field so that’s going to be a plus as well. We have a lot of experience coming back, which should bode well for us.”

Trinity Catholic. After a 6-4 season, the present and future of the Crusaders lie in the numbers. There are just around 35 varsity players, which is a concern, but 22 freshmen. Running back Nick Melia is a top weapon.

“The keys for us this season are staying healthy,” coach Donny Panapada said. “If we stay healthy we’ve got some players. I am proud of this group, I’ve got some tough kids.”