STAMFORD — Desperation finally brought out the best in the New Canaan football team.
With their season on the line, and facing a rival that had humbled them for five straight years, the Rams put forth their best effort of the season and won today’s annual Turkey Bowl against Darien, 27-0.
The Rams (8-2), who would have failed to qualify for the state playoffs without their fifth successive win, are now returning for the 13th straight season. They will begin pursuit of a fifth consecutive state title as the No. 8 seed in the Class L playoffs on the road in Tuesday’s quarterfinal against Middletown.
“I’m just really happy for our seniors,” New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli said. “They’ve been maligned since they came to high school, people telling them that their losers, they can’t win, they can’t do this and they can’t do that. They turned it around. We finally got it together today. We shot ourselves in the foot a couple of times. I’m so proud of them. They work hard.”
This game had a different atmosphere to it from the past, in large part because both schools had been ranked at the top of the state polls in recent seasons — Darien was No. 1 and New Canaan 10th — but more because three Blue Wave starters missed the game after getting arrested yesterday for an incident that happened 17 days ago.
The Blue Wave were without starting quarterback Jack Joyce, who was charged with interfering with an officer and disorderly conduct, and receiver/defensive back Brian Minicus, charged with third-degree assault and second-degree unlawful restraint. A third two-way starter also missed the game.
Though the possibility of arrests had been rumored for over a week, they came down on the eve of today’s game. Darien coach Rob Trifone said he found out at 5 p.m.
“When you lose three key players literally the night before it obviously makes a big difference,” Trifone said. “We practiced backups a little more than normal. Some things that happen to teenagers are bigger than a football game.”
The players are due to appear in court on Dec. 5. Darien (9-1), which came in riding a 34-game winning streak, dropped to No. 3 in the Class LL rankings and will set out for a third straight title Tuesday against East Hartford.
Trifone said he was uncertain if the suspended players would play next week or in a possible semifinal, which is scheduled for two days before the court appearance.
That made the opening play today have even greater impact as sophomore Peter Graham, starting at quarterback, was intercepted by the Rams’ Jake Ciancio, who returned it for a touchdown and quick 7-0 lead.
“We were able to shut down the run game really quickly and that first play just set the tone and made them nervous,” said Grant Morse, who shined both on defense and special teams. Our D-line got to the quarterback and our secondary made some great plays.”
Instead of gaining early confidence with a completion right away, it had to have the opposite effect on Graham, who was put into a difficult situation. He finished just 7 of 18 for 58 yards, and had a second interception returned by Zach Miller for a touchdown late in the game.
New Canaan finished with four interceptions and five sacks, holding the Blue Wave to just 72 yards of total offense.
“They haven’t been shut out too many times,” Marinelli said. “For (defensive coordinator) Chris Silvestri and the defensive staff, and for the kids to buy in. And they worked hard the last 11 days to get that performance down. And the kids that executed the plan were tremendous.”
The Blue Wave defense, which had produced four straight shutouts and allowed just 35 points in the first nine games, positioned the team for a win. New Canaan had just 239 total yards.
The Rams went to a much more conservative gameplan, which included abandoning the no-huddle offense, in part because they used a number of players on both sides of the ball. Owen Shin rushed for 120 yards on 27 carries, including a 23-yard score midway through the third quarter that increased the Rams’ lead to 17-0.
Morse made two field goals, including a 44-yarder in the third quarter. After a penalty-filled season — the Rams still committed nine today, more than half their totals in losses to St. Joseph and Greenwich — Morse said the circumstances meshed to bring out the performance that was consistently expected when the team was ranked No. 1 in the state in the preseason poll.
“It took longer than we wanted it to and it finally did today and it was great,” Morse said. “It was an exciting game. We’ve been planning on this forever. It’s just the best feeling right now.”
The Rams said they prepared as if the missing Darien starters would be active.
“I thought they were going to be playing today. I feel terrible,” Marinelli said. “It’s unfortunate for them. It would have been so much better had they played because we would have been ready no matter who played. It’s easy for me to say now. Those are some good football players that had to sit out. Their kids played hard and deserve a lot of credit.”
Darien’s situation going forward will be greatly impacted by the status of their missing players.
“A good offense helps a good defense,” Trifone said. “You can’t go three and out, four, five and out and expect the defense to stop guys like that. “I’ve got a great group of kids that played their hearts out. You take away the pick-6s, it’s a football game.”
Despite their low seed, the Rams are well-positioned to have a strong postseason if they can continue to minimize mistakes.
“We’re still playing football and it doesn’t get any better than that,” Marinelli said.