FAIRFIELD — The culmination of a rebound from a 3-2 start came together for the New Canaan football team this afternoon in the semifinal round of the Class LL playoffs.
The offense was efficient, the reborn defense dominant. The result was a resounding 38-7 win at Fairfield Prep.
The Rams will play in the championship game for the 11th time in 13 years. Their run of four straight titles was ended last year when they lost to Masuk in the semifinals.
“That’s been the ultimate goal since day one and now we’re here and it’s another week, another game,” said Garrett Braden, who had a pivotal play in a ferocious defensive effort. “We’re all very lucky and very happy to be here but we know we have to deal with another business week and one more week with each other is all we could ask for. We’ve maxed out this season and now we’re just ready to go and compete and perform.”
The coming days will be a circus: the Rams will face Greenwich in Saturday’s final, a rematch of their week five game. Of course one of the biggest storylines will be the family affair, with New Canaan’s Lou Marinelli pitted against his son John Marinelli, the Cardinals’ coach.
It was a 42-14 loss to Greenwich that left the Rams at 3-2 and tinkering on the edge of missing the postseason for the first time in 15 years. But they have not lost since, coming back from a bye with a seven-game winning streak.
“Ever since then we’ve always fought together, practiced a lot harder,” said quarterback Drew Pyne. “We’ve got one more to go.”
Pyne, whose play has been a constant all season, was not bothered by light rain in the first half. He was 22 of 28 for 222 yards and a score.
“We were able to spread the field on them and all thanks to coach Dante (Correnty),” Pyne said, referring to the Rams’ offensive coordinator. “He’s put us in the right position.”
A re-emphasis on the running game has been a key component for the Rams during this streak, and J.R. Moore has emerged as one of their significant players. He gained 147 yards and had two scores.
New Canaan enjoyed a 268-10 edge in rushing yards against the Jesuits (10-2).
For them to come back the way they did and to be beaten the way we were against Greenwich,” Marinelli said. “Some of the lowest moments. But the kids came back. They’ve hung together and I think they’ve gotten better every week. I’m so happy with these kids to get to play in a state championship. We have a tall mountain to climb.”
New Canaan, the No. 8 seed, drove down the field with the opening kickoff, resulting in a 1-yard touchdown run by Moore.
A long punt return by Quintin O’Connell, who had 165 total yards and a rushing touchdown, set up a 20-yard field goal by Nick Radman.
Braden then sacked and caused a fumble by Prep quarterback John Iaropoli. Kieran Buck recovered it, setting up Pyne’s 52-yard touchdown pass to Wyatt Wilson that gave New Canaan a 17-0 halftime lead.
The defense struggled in the team’s losses to St. Joseph and Greenwich, yielding an average of 35 points.
“It’s been incredible. As a unit we’ve stepped up, all 11 men,” Braden said. “You can’t point out one sole person because it does take a team effort. We’ve been working at this since day one and sometimes it takes longer for things to click, and it’s finally here and we’re just rolling.”
Iaropoli’s 15-yard touchdown pass to Finn Duran gave Prep life, but it was dashed when the Rams responded for a drive that ended with Moore’s 11-yard run to go ahead, 24-7.
New Canaan had the advantage in fortune as well. Moore fumbled a ball into the end zone, but lineman Harrison Skyrm pounced on it for a score and 31-7 lead.
“I think we all came together and fought as a team,” Pyne said of the Rams’ resurgence. “The defense had our back and the offense had the defense’s back. I think we’re getting better every single week. I’m happy about it.”
Added Marinelli, “The kids have really improved, they’ve worked hard. The one thing there will definintely be an FCIAC champion in LL this year, which is great. And some Marinelli is going to win.”