By Dave Ruden
With the growth and expansion of the CIAC football playoffs, the FCIAC championship, in the minds of many, has been somewhat marginalized.
That hardly means Friday night’s game, between New Canaan and St. Joseph, is of no importance to teams with different attachments.
Quite the contrary.
Despite their recent run of state tournament appearances, the Rams have not been to the conference final since 2008, when it won the title against Darien before 10,000 fans. They have made a habit of finishing in third place in the league’s point rankings that determine the finalists.
“I can remember back in the day when the FCIAC championship was everything and no one cared about states,” New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli said. “Now it’s changed, but it is still hard to get into the FCIAC final with only two teams. We’ve been bridesmaids. I’m proud of this team for getting there and being one of the last two standing. The goal every year is to win the FCIAC and state championships. We are in a position to do that.”
The Cadets, on the other hand, are making their first appearance in the league showcase.
In a sense they are playing with house money: the teams met three weeks ago, an emphatic 62-21 New Canaan win. Given the decisiveness of the outcome and how recently the game was played, few are expecting a different result.
“This is the first time as coach I’ve ever played a team a second time in a year,” said the Cadets’ Joe Della Vecchia, who is in his 16th season. “We broke down film from the first game, looked over mistakes and said these are the things that we have to correct. We broke everything down series by series, play by play.”
Obviously there are few positives St. Joseph (9-1) can take away defensively. But it did manage 388 yards of offense, and running back Mufasha Abdul-Basir finished with 134 yards and an average of 5.4 per carry. But it is difficult to stay on the ground when you are losing by so much. And the Cadets were hurt by four turnovers.
“We didn’t finish a lot of drives and were hurt by the turnovers and five drops,” Della Vecchia said. “That makes it tough, and every mistake they capitalized on.”
Lars Pedersen, who is the Cadets’ leading receiver, is one of the few on the team who plays on both sides of the ball.
“I go both ways and giving up 61, we’re not too pleased with that at all,” Pedersen said. “There are a lot of coverages and things to change up. If all goes well we will be in good spots to make plays and have more success than the first time.”
New Canaan (10-0), the state’s top-ranked team, has few weaknesses. It has won by an average of 34.5 points per game. The defense is loaded with stars. The offense is explosive.
Perhaps the only cause for worry — and not an inconsequential one at that — is the status of starting quarterback Nick Cascione, who sustained a concussion two weeks ago against Wilton.
Marinelli said early Thursday evening that Cascione’s status remains questionable. He was examined by a doctor earlier in the day and is scheduled to be evaluated again Friday morning.
If Cascione does play, will his lack of practice affect his performance? If he is forced to miss the game, how will his replacement, sophomore Mike Collins, handle the pressure.
“Whoever plays, they are going to make changes to defend us,” Marinelli said. “They’ve had two more games to look at us. Things can be different. If we turn the ball over the way we have the last two games, we will make it close. This is like our second season for us.”
Pedersen said he is aware that the general fan feels Friday night’s game could be a reasonable facsimile of the first meeting. He said the Cadets have turned deaf ears to the talk outside their locker room.
“It’s the FCIAC championship game and we are going to do our best to win,” Pedersen said. “This is a one-game season. We want to get the title, and if we lose we have the state playoffs. But we are going to try and come out with our first championship.”