Darien coach Rob Trifone said there is an occupational hazard that happens late each fall.
“Every single high school coach looks at their graduation loss and says how the heck am I going to do this,” Trifone said. “What am I going to do about that?”
Most recently, that question has confronted Trifone in December, and a year ago it was a serious dilemma. The thrill of victory following a second straight state title soon yielded to the uncomfortable realization that many of the players responsible would not be back. There were holes to fill, and the likely candidates looked promising in practice but were untested.
Then there was Mike Neary, the 6-3, 245-pound lineman who was one of the returning pieces Trifone knew he could count on to perform on the field and lead off of it.
“He’s accepted that role in a big way and takes on the responsibility for it because he knows we had some graduation losses, especially on defense but both sides of the ball,” Trifone said.
It is December and the Blue Wave are again preparing to play on the final day of the season. They will face Greenwich on Saturday in the Class LL final.
“It’s kind of a rivalry game,” Neary said. “Not necessarily New Canaan-Darien, but there’s definitely some tension between us. They’re obviously a great team and there’s a reason they’re 12-0 right now and it should be a fun game to play.”
Neary has been an anchor on the offensive line and one of the sack leaders on defense. He is one of the few two-way players on the team this season.
“We definitely had a lot of graduated players and the focus gets taken off the other guys, because we have so many great players from last year,” Neary said. “Obviously not everyone can play when everyone on the team is so good. It was just a matter of us having guys who were going to get a larger role this year. They were going to fill their shoes.”
That includes Neary with his added playing time. It is hard to determine where he makes the greatest impact because he dominates on both sides of the ball.
“He’s a special young man,” Trifone said. “He’s big enough to be a lineman but athletic enough to play almost anywhere else. He’s one of the strongest kids on the team.”
Neary said he is probably needed more on offense but gets a bigger rush — no pun intended — on defense going after opposing quarterbacks. Offensive lines in particular are like a team within a team because of the chemistry involved.
“He’s a special young man. He’s big enough to be a lineman but athletic enough to play almost anywhere else. He’s one of the strongest kids on the team.”
— Darien coach Rob Trifone
“The offensive line has always been a core part of the team,” Neary said. “And our coach Tom O’Neil has always done a great job with the fundamentals and the technique aspect of it so we’ve always been solid on that front and this year too. It’s always fun to rock and roll. We’re a very close-knit group and it’s just fun to really mesh like that. It’s a bunch of guys you’ve really known most of your life and to be able to put it together is really special.”
Trifone said Neary also fills the bill of the type of role models he prefers in the locker room.
“Michael is a silent leader,” Trifone said. “I like those types. I like kids that are vocal, but the problem with being a vocal leader is you better be to every practice on time, first in sprints. Michael is just the opposite. He’s always there early. He never misses a day. He’ll be first in every sprint because he’s the fastest lineman we’ve got. You like and expect those types of leaders.”
While the Blue Wave appeared to have some question marks three months ago, now they are back where Neary had hoped — and expected.
“It feels good for sure,” Neary said. “We knew all along we had guys who would step up in a major way for us and they definitely did throughout. It feels to be good in the state championship in my senior season. Definitely a big bonus to be playing in the final.”