A team would have to get up pretty early in the morning to have a shot at beating the Darien football team. Even then, the Blue Wave would seem to be right at home at daybreak.
When temperatures neared 100 degrees on the turf this preseason, the coaching staff and players got together and decided to suit up in the early morning in order to beat the heat.
“I said ‘Look guys. We’re not going to be able to practice unless we go at 6 a.m.,’” head coach Rob Trifone said. “And they bought in, so we’ve been practicing in the early morning all week. Not a single kid was late and not a single kid’s complained. You’ve got to like that about the team — there’s good karma and good chemistry.”
Karma and chemistry were also in good supply on last year’s Blue Wave squad, which had another stupendous season capped with a state championship three-peat.
Darien was challenged when it suffered its first loss in three years — to rival New Canaan in the Turkey Bowl, no less. The players regrouped and the Wave rolled through the Class LL tournament and defeated Greenwich 31-22 in a snowy final at Stamford’s Boyle Stadium.
While a lot of key players have graduated from that team, one of the program’s mottos is Pay It Forward.
“The alumni who have come before them have treated these kids well, showed them how to win and how to be a team, and most importantly, showed them how to be friends,” Trifone said. “All that carries over. The team that came before last year’s team helped teach those seniors what you saw happen in the state playoffs, and that carries over to this team.
“Each of my teams as we go forward, doesn’t want to disappoint the previous team and the alumni. It’s a good thing.”
Leading the Wave in its quest for another winning season and a possible fourth straight state title, are the four senior co-captains: Connor Fay, Will Keating, Bruce Ferguson and Blake Cellar.
Fay is a returning starter at middle linebacker who led the Wave in tackles with 86 last year. An All-State selection, Fay, who also had three fumble recoveries, an interception and 2.5 sacks, will be the key cog in the defense.
“Connor Fay was our starting mike linebacker (middle inside LB) last
year and he’s one of the better linebackers in the league if not the state,” Trifone said. “Everyone on the team would agree that he is the consummate leader of the team. He is vocal and they all respect Connor and he’s just that type of kid.”
Keating is a returning starter at left tackle and will help anchor the offensive line.
“Willy Keating is our big left tackle and he’s a wonderful young man,” Trifone said. “He’s a great leader and his predominant job is to work with all the other linemen, which he does an incredible job with.”
The other two captains will be part of the Wave’s secondary, with Cellar at safety and Ferguson at cornerback. Cellar had 29 tackles and 6 passes defended as a junior, while Ferguson made 16 tackles, an interception, and two passes defended.
“Blake Cellar and Bruce Ferguson both play in our secondary and they’ve been doing a great job,” Trifone said. “All four of my captains, and all of my seniors, too, lead by doing. It’s not the most vocal group, but they don’t have to be. When you’re up front in sprints and things like that, it’s enough said.”
Darien’s biggest question for this season was who would be the starting quarterback as senior Cooper Hancock and junior Peter Graham battled for the spot. The competition was close, with the coaches eventually tabbing Hancock for the job.
“It was a long, difficult battle and I know it was hard on them and hard on the staff because they’re so close,” Trifone said. “We felt it was in the best interests of the team to pick a starter and have the team rally behind one or the other. Cooper edged it out. We are very fortunate because we have two quarterbacks who could start for many teams in this league.”
Hancock will have no shortage of targets, as the Wave boasts no fewer than five veteran wide receivers.
“All five of them are seniors, all five have phenomenal hands, and all five are great targets for both of our quarterbacks,” Trifone said.
Leading the receiving corps is Tyler Herget, who was made several acrobatic catches in the snow during the Class LL final last year. He was second on the team with 27 receptions for 320 yards and four touchdowns.
TJ Cornacchia, who had a touchdown catch in the state final, is also back in the fold, along with Will Rolapp, Will Koehler and Peter Bredahl.
The running game will feature senior Andrew Lucas and junior Will Kirby. Lucas saw quite a bit of time on the field as a backup behind Mitch Pryor last season, finishing with 55 carries for 365 yards and 7 touchdowns. Kirby carried 30 times for 194 yards and 3 TDs.
The O-line will feature returning starters with Keating at left tackle and senior Ryan Sullivan at center. The rest of the line will include a rotation of several different players, including senior John Lochtefeld, juniors Luke Sini, Mark Trifone and Graydon Overbeck, and sophomore Jackson Walsh.
On defense, the Wave will feature a strong linebacking crew.
“The linebackers are the strength of our defense with Connor Fay and what he does,” Trifone said. “And we’ve got (juniors) Sammy Wilson and John Henry Slonieski. They’re three very talented linebackers.”
A deep secondary returns the captains Cellar and Ferguson, with several other players in the mix, including juniors Jackson Peters, Sean Gifford and Michael Minicus, and senior Austin Dehmel.
Of the defensive units, Darien has had to replace the most players on its line, as Lochtefeld is the lone returning starter. Trifone said the line will not be as big as past seasons, but still features plenty of speed and athleticism.
In the mix for starting time are DEs Alex Quirk, a senior, and Will Bothwell, a junior, along with DTs senior Brendan Vodola and junior Charlie Hunter.
Andrew Donovan returns as an All-State kicker and punter.
“They’re a very hard-working, cohesive group,” Trifone said. “They’re certainly not afraid of hard work and I like that they encourage each other.”