If it seems like the needle has been turned down just a bit for Thursday’s annual Turkey Bowl between Darien and New Canaan, that is because you have to go back five years to the last time ether team entered with more than one loss.
The Blue Wave came into that game with what now seems like a downright mediocre 6-3 mark. They also defeated the Rams, 36-23, the start of five straight wins in the series.
That should prove an instructive lesson for the Rams, who prior to 2012 were 9-0-1 on Thanksgiving. It only appears as if they have fallen off the radar, even though the dip is to No. 10 in this week’s state poll, with a 7-2 record. It is the first time since 2007 the Rams have faced Darien with two losses. Of far greater importance is New Canaan’s ranking in the Class L point standings: eighth.
New Canaan is in danger of seeing its run of 12 straight state playoff appearances and four successive titles ended without a win.
“We’ve had the opportunity to rest up a little bit, get healthy and see where we are,” New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli said. “I’m more concerned about our kids and shooting ourselves in the foot than what Darien can do. They are obviously a very good team and have earned everything that they’ve gotten, but I’m more concerned about my guys.”
In breaking down the game, Marinelli has stressed the same internal concerns that have plagued his team since a season-opening loss to St. Joseph. The Rams were hit with 15 penalties in that game, one fewer than a defeat to Greenwich at midseason.
“We’ve got to try to control the ball a little bit and the biggest thing is to control our penalties,” Marinelli said. “We’ve shot ourselves in the foot, we’ve even shot ourselves in the foot in games we’ve won. I’m more concerned about us and what we can do.”
The hope had been that the Rams’ difficulties would finally be solved and the potential that led them to be ranked No. 1 in the state preseason poll would emerge. This will be the last chance for them to prove this is not a season-defining — and season-ending — flaw.
“They’re not as cohesive as some of the teams I’ve had in the past and that has hurt us,” Marinelli said. “Sometimes a lack of discipline, which is my fault if you can’t teach kids to control themselves. It has been a different type of year. When you have a team that is talented and you can’t get the most out of them as a coach, that’s frustrating.”
The stakes for New Canaan have overshadowed the Blue Wave, who have already secured a Class LL playoff berth and starting next Tuesday will begin a run for their third straight state title. Over the last month they have played just one team with a winning record, and faced their two most difficult opponents in the first three weeks.
“I always look forward to coaching in big games and the players love playing in big games, so we’re certainly looking forward to it,” Darien coach Rob Trifone said. “I think New Canaan is probably the best 7-2 team I’ve ever seen. They are an explosive team on offense, they are very sound defensively. They have hurt themselves with penalties. Lou is the first to admit it. The scary thing is you get that team in a game and they don’t make any mistakes, they’ll beat anyone in the state.”
The Blue Wave have been on cruise control with a 34-game winning streak, but the absence for so long of any big-game hype has made that accomplishment seem more afterthought than significant.
And Darien is not without its own incentives. A loss would cause it to fall in the Class LL rankings and make the road to a three-peat more difficult.
“Just like New Canaan and Marinelli, we want to win every game,” Trifone said. “Homefield advantage the first two rounds of the playoffs is obviously what’s at stake for us. Not to mention the Turkey Bowl trophy and tradition. There’s a lot on the line. New Canaan has a lot of incentives, too.”
The Blue Wave are riding four straight shutouts and have allowed just 35 points in their nine wins. Some of those came against reserves. Defensive coordinator Mike Forget was voted a league Assistant Coach of the Year.
“Just like New Canaan and Marinelli, we want to win every game. Homefield advantage the first two rounds of the playoffs is obviously what’s at stake for us. Not to mention the Turkey Bowl trophy and tradition. There’s a lot on the line. New Canaan has a lot of incentives, too.”
— Darien coach Rob Trifone
“Our defense has been playing well all year long regardless of the opponent,” Trifone said. “We have played some high quality teams. Mike Forget has done a wonderful job. If you play good defense you’re in every game and we have a good chance in every game. Offensively we can’t turn the ball over. In games we have sputtered offensively it has been a matter of turning the ball over. As long as we take care of the football we’re going to be fine.”
Marinelli said he has seen a sense or urgency in practice. His players, he said, don’t want to be the ones to end their current state streaks.
More importantly, he said, they want to have another game to prepare for after Thursday.
“I think they want to continue to play, I think they know they’ve had the opportunities to be as good as any team we’ve had and we have no one to blame but ourselves,” Marinelli said. “I think we are good enough to beat anybody. In the games we’ve lost I can’t question the effort. I think it is more my fault because I touted them as being so good because on paper we’re a good team. It’s just stupid penalties.”