The Darien Blue Wave has owned the CIAC Class LL tournament for the past three seasons. Three consecutive state championships, nine straight playoff victories, and, adding in a couple of Class L years, five straight appearances in the finals.
So what’s the secret recipe which has helped keep the Wave going with the short prep time between tournament games?
“The preparation is fast and furious but not as physical as normal,” Darien head coach Rob Trifone said. “We don’t do a lot of running at this time of the year, so it’s much more mental and talk-through and what do you do in different situations.”
No. 6 Darien (9-1) will begin its bid for a fourth straight state championship when it plays at the No. 3 Newtown Nighthawks (10-0) in the Class LL quarterfinals at 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, at Blue and Gold Stadium in Newtown.
The Nighthawks wrapped up an SWC championship and their fifth unbeaten regular season in the past 10 years with a 21-14 win over Masuk last Wednesday and, like Trifone, head coach Bobby Pattison said the quick turnaround to playoff games is a mental battle.
“It’s physically and psychologically demanding,” Pattison said. “You could play four times in a matter of two weeks. Everything is kind of scrunched in there, but physically, there’s no more contact in practices, so a lot of its mental. You game plan, scout your opponent and make adjustments, but it’s definitely going to be tough.”
It’s a loaded tournament field. Newtown is one of four 10-0 teams; Darien leads a group of three 9-1 teams; and the one team at 8-2 in New Canaan, which has won eight state titles since 2006.
The eventual champion will have earned its keep.
“Class LL by far is the toughest it’s been in a while,” Pattison said. “There’s a lot of great teams and there will be a lot of great games on Tuesday. As far as preparing, you just have to deal with it one game at a time and focus on the next opponent.”
Darien is in a familiar spot, albeit somewhat unwanted, as for the second straight year, it lost to rival New Canaan 17-14 in the Turkey Bowl on Thanksgiving. Last year, the Wave rebounded to defeat East Hartford, West Haven and Greenwich for the Class LL crown.
“There’s no question that any time you lose the Turkey Bowl it stings,” Trifone said. “But I think (the kids are) in a good place. We lost it last year and we went on to win the next three and become state champs. So they know they have that history.”
Newtown is as tough a first-round opponent as the Wave has seen. The Nighthawks have outscored their opponents by a 424-50 margin and, prior to the win over Masuk, had won every game by at least 21 points.
The offense features senior co-captain Dan Mason, a 6-foot-0, 220-pound running back who has racked up more than 1,200 rushing yards and scored 27 touchdowns this year. He’s topped 125 rushing yards six times, and had 132 yards on 23 carries in the win over Masuk.
Senior quarterback Luke Melillo has had a solid season with 1,316 passing yards and 10 touchdowns against just two picks.
Senior linebacker Easton Ricks (6-0, 185) leads the Newtown defense, which also features senior co-captains Max DuBois (6-2, 200) at linebacker and Joe Pagett (5-9, 175) at strong safety. Juniors LB James Dunn (6-3, 220) and DE James Knox (6-4, 230) are also key play-makers.
“They’re a big, physical team,” Trifone said of Newtown. “They’ve got the Mason kid at tailback and they’re a hard-nosed football team. They kind of jam the ball down your throat and that’s what we expect from them.”
While Newtown has limited opponents to 50 points, Darien’s defense isn’t far off that mark, as the Wave has allowed just 78 points.
Darien’s defense features a linebacking corps of senior co-captain Connor Fay (6-0, 215) and juniors Sam Wilson (5-10, 185) and John Henry Slonieski (5-10, 170), along with senior DE Alex Quirk (6-4. 205), and senior DT John Lochtefeld (6-0, 170).
Senior QB Cooper Hancock has nearly 1,900 passing yards with 19 TDs and seven interceptions, with senior receivers Will Rolapp (43 receptions, 570 yards, 6 TDs), Peter Bredahl (28 catches, 418 yards, 6 TDs), and Tyler Herget (32 receptions, 396 yards, 3 TDs) as his top targets. Junior Will Kirby and senior Andrew Lucas leading the ground game.
“What’s most impressive about Darien is they’re coached very well,” Pattison said of Darien. “Obviously they’ve won three years in a row and it’s a new crop of kids every year, so those kids are playing at a high level every season. They’re very efficient and they don’t make mistakes. You don’t see a lot of flags or fumbles. They take care of the football and limit their physical and mental mistakes.”
Limiting mistakes has served Darien well during it’s three-year reign as state champion and that trend will need to continue if the Wave wants to overcome a Newtown team which has handled every opponent so far this season.