Commentary: FCIAC Sports In 2016 Offered Welcome Reprieve From Outside World

The Darien boys lacrosse team had a lot to celebrate after its 31st straight win resulted in a state title. (Photo: Matt Dewkett)

If you have scanned your Twitter feed at any point during the past month, it is easy to see why there is a strong sentiment to give 2016 a swift kick into the rear-view mirror. Often this has been in response to the growing list of celebrity losses in the entertainment world; we have seen the deaths of an extraordinary number of performers with visionary talent, especially in the music world.

Of greater consequence, this is a year that too often showed the very worst of this country. Without stepping into partisanship, when did we become so unwilling to compromise in an attempt to solve differences? As an information junkie taught at an early age to read a daily newspaper, I face each day with a growing sense of anxiety. Staring at my array of news sources is like looking too long at a solar eclipse. If there is an overriding wish for 2017, it is that we rediscover our way.

Fortunately, the FCIAC gave some of us a welcome reprieve over the past year. As it usually does. This was an unusually good 12 months for the conference. No matter what the news outside, there always seemed to be a good game to cover or an athlete to profile that provided the added element of escapism.

If there was an overriding theme, it was the achievement of excellence. Darien and New Canaan maintained it on the football field. The Darien program achieved a broad level of it in the spring that may be unprecedented. Ridgefield offered a reasonable facsimile this past fall. That would be the biggest storyline of the year.

We can start with the state’s best sports rivalry since it is most current. The Turkey Bowl this year between Darien and New Canaan was not for a conference title, but as is turned out for the No. 1 ranking in Connecticut, which the Blue Wave earned for the second straight year by virtue of their enthralling overtime win over the Rams, who had rallied from a 34-10 second-half deficit and were on the verge of the greatest come-from-behind victory in the history of this series.

Marthe Guirand and Camille Martinez celebrated Stamford’s first state girls basketball title. (Photo: Gregory Vasil)

If there was a lesson for those of us who questioned the schools’ abilities to stay atop the standings because of personnel turnovers that left us with unfamiliar names and faces, it was simple: don’t. Both programs have become self-perpetuating machines.

This leads to a quick aside about the discussion to introduce a tiered system to the FCIAC schedule, where teams of similar recent ability would be grouped and play each other during the regular season. Fortunately, but just by a one-vote margin, the current format was maintained.

Fortunately, the FCIAC gave some of us a welcome reprieve over the past year. As it usually does.

While there is certainly a difference in resources between the perennial powers and a number of struggling programs, save for a rare exception like the SCC or European soccer, nowhere else is there a system that could only be described as sports welfare. Under a change, of the five schools — Darien, New Canaan, Ridgefield, Greenwich and St. Joseph — that qualified for the state playoffs, at least one and probably two deserving teams would have sat home after Thanksgiving. Is that fairer than, say, a year when the best of a weaker bunch might run the table and get to the postseason?

No one tries to make the road more difficult for FCIAC powers in sports that don’t get the same publicity as football. The New York Giants won’t be facing a schedule of playoff teams next year because of their success this fall. And it is possible to turn programs around. Just ask Staples’ Marce Petroccio and Dave Cadelina, the former coach at Bridgeport Central.

The recently released football schedule for next year is one of the fairest I can remember: each school seems to be playing an equal number of teams coming off strong and mediocre to subpar seasons. That is the way it should be.

Quintin O’Connell and the New Canaan football team finished No. 2 in the state. (Photo: Chris Cody)

End of digression, or else the talk will have to turn how to tame the machine that has become the Darien sports program, especially in the spring. In an incredible feat, the Blue Wave won five conference titles — baseball, boys lacrosse, girls lacrosse, boys volleyball and girls tennis — in four days, then added a sixth, in boys golf, the following week. That is an unbelievable wealth of concurrent talent that was both a tribute to the senior class that graduated in the spring and, when you look at most other sports, the state of the town’s youth programs and the community support.

Nearly as impressive is what just took place in Ridgefield, where the girls cross country program won league and state titles and the girls soccer team repeated as FCIAC champion. The girls swimming team took home its first conference title. Then, the football, girls soccer, volleyball and swim teams all finished as state runners-up.

If there was an overriding theme, it was the achievement of excellence. Darien and New Canaan maintained it on the football field. The Darien program achieved a broad level of excellence in the spring that may be unprecedented. Ridgefield offered a reasonable facsimile this past fall. That would be the biggest storyline of the year.

These were the stories that formed the biggest theme to recapping the last (almost) 365 days, but there were many more that stood out.

The city of Stamford was a focal point with the girls basketball team winning its first league title in 37 years, followed by its inaugural state title. The school’s volleyball team followed suit eight months later in another emotional dual run.

The Westhill boys basketball team, written off by many after the graduation of Jeremiah Livingston, summoned the resolve to win a second straight conference title.

The Ridgefield girls soccer team were waving index fingers after its second straight FCIAC title. (Photo: Dave Ruden)

The Greenwich and Trumbull boys soccer teams put on a pair of shows, regular-season and FCIAC-final ties that offered no degree of separation, including being eliminated on the same day of the state playoffs. The FCIAC ruled the rink, as Darien and the Fairfield and Stamford-Westhill Co-Op teams won state boys hockey titles.

Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, individual athletes resonate and leave imprints.

Darien’s senior class may have been the most talented in school history but, led by two-sport Player of the Year Mark Evanchick and Chandler Kirby, who won 13 titles for the girls hockey and lacrosse teams, they were equally likable.

It was hard not to respect New Canaan freshman quarterback Drew Pyne, who despite the fanfare that greeted his arrival made sure he acted just like one of the guys, until indeed he was.

Purely personal, the last two years with the Ridgefield girls soccer team were a lot of fun. I could selfishly point to the incredible traffic they brought to this site, but the nine senior starters who played together for years each possess infectious personalities that transcend their considerable skills, and were a reporter’s dream with their insightful thoughts.

And with that we say farewell to 2016. Outside of our little sports world here, the bar is set pretty low for 2017 to surpass. Inside? I guess it would be fitting to say it will take the kind of effort we have come to expect from Greenwich’s Safir Scott and Ridgefield’s Grace Goodwin — the FCIAC’s top returning high-jumpers.

 

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