NEW CANAAN — The two biggest offseason stories in the FCIAC have been the seven coaching changes that will shake up the league and New Canaan suddenly becoming a pipeline for top FBS programs, with four commitments, including an unprecedented three coming on a single day.
That quartet — quarterback Drew Pyne (Notre Dame), tackles Jack Stewart (Michigan) and Jack Conley (Boston College), and linebacker Garrett Braden (Rice) — has been used as the primary point for why the Rams should be the preseason No. 1 team in the state, a status most believe will remain steady through the state finals.
But those four played prominent roles a year ago, when New Canaan slipped to 9-3 and lost in the Class L semifinals, ending a run of five successive CIAC championships.
As New Canaan prepares for its opener at St. Joseph, one of the most highly anticipated regular season games, coaches and players alike have readily accepted realizing their goals rests on a simple equation: 4+18=1.
In football speak, the Rams’ hopes of finishing No. 1 depends as much on the other 18 starters as the four hyped players.
“If all we have is those four players then all we’re going to do is talk about how good they are,” New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli said. “It’s about good teams and right now we’re trying to build a team. If all we talk about is all the scholarships then we will be back in the same situation as we were last year.”
The Rams were forced to play catch up last season following an opening night setback against St. Joseph, the eventual Class S champion. The two other losses came against a pair of state finalists, Greenwich and Masuk.
Still, the internal consensus is a lack of discipline and a team not as close as its predecessors kept the Rams from realizing their full potential.
Marinelli took the blame for the self-inflicted mistakes.
“I think I let things slide,” Marinelli said. “You say it’s OK that you were five minutes late, it’s OK that your don’t buckle your chinstrap, oh it’s OK your kneepads are below your knees, oh it’s OK, it’s OK. What happens is you play like that. We got all upset at the officials when the reality is we as coaches didn’t hold their feet to the fire and then you get to a big game and you are jumping offsides, or 12 guys are on the field in a critical situation, or you are missing blocks. We got away from paying attention to the little things that are so important.”
The returning players are trying to set a new tone in the locker room. That effort has been spearheaded in part by the group that has been the source for the most attention.
“I feel as a team that those four guys have … I’m proud of them,” center Connor Volpe said. “Those four have been coached at such a high level. They’re just leading the team. This year compared to last year we’re more of a family. Those four individuals have realized that they have a big chip on their shoulders. Instead of making themselves more well known, they are trying to help us win a championship.”
Egos were checked at the door long before the first practice of summer. And Pyne, Stewart, Conley and Braden by nature have never been been attention seekers.
“No one on our team is really jealous,” said receiver and safety Will Rechtermann. “Everyone knows the four of them are all in and not focused on leaving for college. The only thing on everyone’s mind is winning a championship and they’re all in on that just like everyone else. We know what we’ve got. We’ve got a good group of guys. We are going to come out swinging this year.”
With a week and a half to go before the start of the regular season, the same four teams from a year ago figure to occupy the top positions again this year. And the Rams face them all, opening with St, Joseph, playing Greenwich at midseason and three-time defending state champion Darien on Thanksgiving.
With New Canaan moving up to Class LL this year, there is a good chance cannibalization will prevent the FCIAC from placing three teams from that division into the playoffs.
“Again with our legacy it’s just keeping our eyes on the main goal and that’s to win a championship,” Volpe said. “I can firmly say that everyone has been working day in and day out because this is something everybody wants.”
By many accounts, this could be the Rams’ best all-around team in some time. They are strong and deep at almost every position. Right now, many of those players are underneath the radar. That is fine with them.
“When we first heard the news we took a step back and realized how big of a deal that is. These four kids are playing DI football,” Rechtermann said. “But at the end of the day they are all our brothers. It takes some pressure off I guess. We have a lot of other players so we are going to be good this year.”
Marinelli said he has tried to turn a deaf ear to the constant talk about having four major college recruits at the same time. With the constant reminders it has not been easy.
“It’s a good thing I can’t get to those chat places,” Marinelli said. “People are going to talk. It’s a good problem to have that we have those kids but that doesn’t assure us of anything. We are playing in the toughest league in the state and any one of those teams can knock you off. If we are as undisciplined as we were last year we are going to have the same result.”
The returns start coming in a week from Saturday. Marinelli has liked what he has seen from the team in practices.
“We have the pieces,” Marinelli said. “We have to try and get back to where we were. I like the feel, I like how far we’ve come so far. We will find out very soon.”