Darien has won the last five Turkey Bowls over New Canaan in what has become the state’s best holiday rivalry.
During the last four, the Rams have had a safety net: they knew no matter the outcome they would still be playing in the state playoffs. And each time they won a championship.
This is not to say that New Canaan has lacked any urgency against the Blue Wave; the players and coaches are tired of being reminded of their recent drought, especially after going 9-0-1 on Thanksgiving prior to 2012.
As the Rams began their preparations for next week’s game, they are in an unaccustomed position. At 7-2, they are currently in eighth place in the Class L point rankings. The Rams are pretty much in a must-win situation; they would need an incredible amount of help to qualify with three losses.
“It is a strange situation,” New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli admitted. “When you need to win to get in it’s different for us for sure.”
This has been a surreal season for a program that started the year No. 1 in the state polls and had high expectations. But they have been playing catchup ever since an opening-night 38-35 loss to St. Joseph. It offered a bit of foreshadowing: the team committed 16 penalties, too many to overcome against an opponent that is one of the favorites to win the Class S title.
Asked if this has been a vexing season, Marinelli said, “It is because on paper we’re a good team. It’s one thing to coach a group of kids that doesn’t have enough talent and they overachieve. In my estimation I think we have the kids and we haven’t been able get them to achieve so it is frustrating for me. We didn’t have the discipline enough to hold the kids’ feet to the fire in those games, which is unusual.”
Penalties were a factor in the Rams’ other loss, to Greenwich, though the Cardinals are unbeaten and No. 2 in the state, so that outcome looks less surprising — if it even was at the time — in retrospect. Though there have been other issues, the lack of discipline has been a mystery that Marinelli has been unable to solve.
Marinelli accepted the blame.
“It’s not saying much for me as a coach or us as a coaching staff that we can’t control the kids as far as not getting penalties and things like that,” he said. “There might be a few different reasons for it but those sound like excuses. The bottom line is I didn’t do a great job as the head coach and we had some things go on internally that hasn’t helped.”
Perhaps because of the team’s recent history, and the talent on the roster, the assumption was that the Rams would eventually play their way out of problems. It hasn’t happened.
Marinelli said though the game against Darien now has heightened importance, practices have been no different.
“We’re going to prepare like we do for every game,” Marinelli said. “I think there might be a little bit more attention to detail but what it boils down to no matter who we’re playing, we’ve got to take care of the football and control our penalties.”
There are a number of schools in Class L that will be rooting for the Blue Wave. They know New Canaan would be a title threat if it qualifies.
This is the first of two years that the Turkey Bowl will be played at Stamford’s Boyle Stadium.
Marinelli is hoping the atmosphere will finally bring out the best in his players.
“It’s just a matter of maintaining our composure,” Marinelli said. “I’m glad we have a game like this. I think our kids deserve to have a game like this, that’s being played in Boyle. So for all intents and purposes it’s our state championship. We’ve got this one last chance to prove it because if we do it and we can win we can do a lot of damage in the state playoffs. That remains to be seen.”
Weekend Game Plan
Bridgeport Central (1-7) at Fairfield Ludlowe (1-7), Thursday, 6 p.m. As their records indicate, both teams are among the leaders for fewest points scored and most allowed. Here is an opportunity for one team to celebrate for the second time this year.
Greenwich (8-0) at Xavier (4-5), Thursday, 6:30 p.m. This game looked much bigger two months ago, but Xavier has had a rare subpar season. This is still a good test for the Cardinals, who need one more win to wrap up a state playoff berth and two to likely finish as the No. 2 seed in Class LL. Traditionalists have lamented the absence of a league championship game; everyone would love to see a Darien-Greenwich matchup. That may still happen in a few weeks.
1. Darien (9-0). Next up for the Blue Wave: the chance to continue their run over New Canaan in the Turkey Bowl and secure the top seed in the Class LL playoffs.
2. Greenwich (8-0). The Cardinals get a chance at Thursday night football with a non-league game against Xavier. They have been the surprise team of the year in terms of exceeding expectations.
3. St. Joseph (8-1). A win over Trumbull wraps up at least a first-round home state tournament game.
4. New Canaan (7-2). It is still surreal that the team voted No. 1 in the first state poll may not even get a chance to continue its run of CIAC titles.
5. Ridgefield (6-3). The best 7-3 team in the state…has a very hollow ring to it at Tiger Hollow.