Last night was a good one for the FCIAC, which went 4-0 in state playoff games. That is not really a surprise: Greenwich, Darien, St. Joseph and New Canaan occupy four of the top seven spots in the final writers’ poll before the end of the season.
They now make up 25 percent of the field of 16 teams still alive heading into Sunday’s semifinals. The chances of taking home three state titles and a Greenwich-Darien Class LL final have been enhanced, but there remain formidable obstacles ahead.
Here are some initial quarterfinal thoughts before digging into the games ahead.
• The four FCIAC schools rank among the top offenses, and because scoring is the most glamorous part of the game, that aspect gets the most attention. That has overshadowed each team’s defense. They combined to allow 25 points last night, and that balance is one reason they have a total of four losses. Half of them have come in head-to-head play.
• Let’s take that last point and shine the microscope on Greenwich, since that is where I was last night. There are a lot of overlooked reasons for the Cardinals’ rise to the No. 1 team in the state. One is the run-to-pass parity. Another, as coach John Marinelli pointed out after the 27-6 win over Fairfield Prep, is how his team has flourished without the ball.
From last night’s story is this Marinelli quote: “All year long our defense has been solid. Everyone credits our offense but our defense and special teams are our best phases.”
The Cardinals’ front seven has few peers and teams have had trouble running against them all season. The Jesuits had a lot of grit as a No. 8 seed, but they drew a bad matchup.
When that point was made to Marinelli, he countered with an equally salient one, which is that Greenwich “is built for a lot of things.” The Cardinals really don’t have an exploitable weakness and have depth in most areas. Marinelli said that having large numbers also benefited in unseen ways, including using scout teams with the capability of better preparing the starters.
The Cardinals were sluggish early last night — some of that had to do with the play of Prep — and quarterback Gavin Muir’s ankle is not 100 percent, but they have the look right now — mentally as well as physically — of a championship team.
• Darien rebounded from its Thanksgiving loss to New Canaan with a 30-10 win over East Hartford, the first step toward a run at a three-peat.
You may have skipped over that piece of information, because the story on the frontburner has remained the status of the three players arrested the day before the Turkey Bowl. The return of quarterback Jack Joyce yesterday got as much if not more attention as the outcome of the game. That is unlikely to change heading into Sunday against West Haven.
That is unfortunate for a number of reasons, most significantly the focus taken off other players on the team. This is a lingering consequence of the Darien school system’s continued silence.
My sense from talking to current and former administrators is that they would handle the situation differently.
One FCIAC athletic director, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said, “Frankly I’m surprised that Darien didn’t get out in front of the story.”
We will keep the legalities aside and leave that for the courts. As it pertains strictly to sports, what can be surmised is Joyce was suspended for a game because he was not charged with assault. Brian Minicus and a third, underaged starter, did not play again last night. They were charged, respectively, with third-degree assault and conspiracy to commit third-degree assault.
Darien officials assumedly decided on a definite punishment. The three players have court dates set for Tuesday.
Why not issue a statement on when/if the players will return? It can simply be addressed as a suspension for a violation of team rules, the broad stroke teams use.
Darien officials immediately cite FERPA — the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act — which protects students’ school records.
The story now lingers and the question of whether the other two players will return on Sunday remains on a par with the game itself, at least until kickoff. If this had been dealt with last week, the discussion would be over, and the word “arrest” would be buried in stories, not placed up top.
There have been negative perceptual consequences as well. A school of thought is that Darien is using this situation to try and gain a competitive advantage, like you would with an injury, leaving an opponent guessing who might or might not be playing. That is a pretty extreme view, but it has been raised to me several times.
The incident is unfortunate, and I can’t think of a sportswriter who doesn’t wish this was in the rear-view mirror so we can get back to dealing solely with the accomplishments of the Darien players on the field.
• Now, back to the field. Class L schools were fearful of four-time defending champion New Canaan qualifying for the tournament. The Rams’ 24-9 win over top-ranked Middletown was an indication why.
The Rams allowed just 43 yards rushing and got a taut performance from quarterback Drew Pyne, who completed 15 of 22 passes for 187 yards and one touchdown and ran for two others.
The remaining three schools in the class are ranked in the top 11 positions in the state poll, with Masuk, the Rams’ semifinal opponent, at No. 9.
New Canaan was in the top spot in the preseason poll. It is two wins away from being No. 1 in Class L.
• St. Joseph’s 62-0 win over O’Brien Tech brought to an intersection the belief by some that there should be divisions for both private and tech schools.
No one expected a close game, and the outcome was decided early. The Cadets, presumed to be on a collision course with Ansonia for a meeting in the Class S final, is one of the state’s top teams. O’Brien Tech played its first state playoff game and provided a great story.
For those decrying a one-sided game, keep in mind the continuation of quarterfinal blowouts. Just two games last night were decided by eight points or fewer. Average margin of victory: 25 points.