It's win or go home for Darien and New Canaan
The backdrop for Thursday's annual Turkey Bowl is a microcosm of the Darien High School football team's season.
Not much was expected from the defending FCIAC champion after almost the entire starting lineup was decimated by graduation losses. Instead, the Blue Wave surprised many by winning their first six games and, if not for a loss to Staples three weeks ago, would have reached the league final for the second straight year.
Now, the Blue Wave (8-1) are viewed by many heading into their Thanksgiving Day game with New Canaan as an underdog, providing another chance to answer their skeptics while perhaps clinching a state-playoff berth in the process.
"I'm very proud of what this team has achieved," Darien coach Rob Trifone said. "If someone told me I could sign up for this six months ago, I would have been in. There was some discussion early on, especially from the seniors, that they were not being recognized coming into the year. Quite a few of them took this to heart. It was a chance to build their own legacy."
The Rams (8-1) will not be lacking for incentive. Though all the trite cliches about tossing aside the records when these rivals meet have been tossed around, this is essentially a play-in game for the CIAC Class L Tournament -- though Darien will still need a little help with a victory.
The loser's season will end, which means New Canaan's run of five straight appearances in a state final will be on the line.
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"This series is really what high school football is all about," New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli said. "That a playoff spot is on the line is just icing on the cake. We know it's going to be more intense than if there wasn't, and I don't think this can be any more intense."
Another run will also be on the line: New Canaan, which is 12-4-1 in the Turkey Bowl (and holds a 47-33-2 overall lead), has not lost to Darien since 2001.
There was a 14-14 tie in 2003, and the memorable 28-20 win in the 2008 FCIAC championship that attracted an estimated 10,000 people to Boyle Stadium.
Last season, six days after winning the league title, Darien suffered a 42-14 beating.
"We want to break the streak," said Peter Gesualdi, the Blue Wave's star running back and cornerback, who has a league-high seven interceptions. "This game is kind of make or break for us. We thought all year we'd at least have a chance for states with all the hard work we put in this summer. We are pretty amped."
New Canaan also seemed on the fast track to playing for the FCIAC title before it suffered an upset loss three weeks ago at Stamford, a game in which quarterback Matt Milano was forced to leave late in the first quarter with a migraine headache.
Milano is again at the heart of a prolific offense that is second in the conference with 331 points. Milano has completed 65 percent of his passes for 2,084 yards and 26 touchdowns. Five different players have caught at least 10 passes, led by Patrick Newton (44 receptions, 634 yards).
"We have so many options, which makes it a lot easier," Milano said. "We just have to keep executing. You kind of expect New Canaan to make states because everyone before you has done it. If we don't it would be a huge letdown."
New Canaan has been utilizing the two players likely to battle to replace Milano next season -- sophomores Teddy Bossidy and Nick Cascione -- in a variety of roles. Cascione is coming off a 134-yard rushing performance against Trumbull, which elevated him to No. 2 on the team this season though he has carried the ball just 22 times.
"I think we've found a few things and it's nice to have a couple of options," Marinelli said. "The offenses are pretty high powered. It's going to come down to who can stop who. I hope it won't turn into a track meet."
The New Canaan defense has been erratic, bending often but rarely breaking. It has allowed more than 14 points on just two occasions, but yielded 33 in a win over Norwalk and 36 in the loss to Stamford. The unit is led by linebackers Kevin McDonough, Dylan Leeming and Michael Root.
Darien is one of the state's most balanced teams offensively, averaging 182 yards a game passing and 162 on the ground. Quarterback Henry Baldwin, with little fanfare, has thrown for 1,634 yards and 24 touchdowns. Gesualdi leads Darien in rushing and receiving, and six different players have caught at least 10 passes.
The defense similarly counts on a collective effort.
"New Canaan is one of the best teams in the state. On any week when New Canaan is playing their `A' game they can play with any team in the state, and I'm including Masuk," Trifone said referring to the team that beat Darien on its way to a victory over the Rams in last season's Class L final and is currently No. 2 in the writers' poll. "What we have to do is slow down their offense somewhat. I haven't seen anyone stop them, though I have seen some teams slow them down a little bit. We are going to have to play ball control and score some points."
After being off for nearly two weeks, both sides are tired of the hype and ready to finally play a game that, for the seniors on one side, will be the last of their careers.
"We just want to get out there," Milano said. "It's kind of strange. Considering the end of your career is one of those things I don't think you will feel until it happens. This has all been a big part of my life. It will be hard when it comes. I hope it isn't for a while."