Darien-New Canaan clash is “all that’s good about high school football”

New Canaan’s Walker Swindell (13) tackles Darien’s Sean Gifford (3) after a catch during the annual Turkey Bowl football game at Darien High School on Thursday, November 28, 2019.

New Canaan’s Walker Swindell (13) tackles Darien’s Sean Gifford (3) after a catch during the annual Turkey Bowl football game at Darien High School on Thursday, November 28, 2019.

David Stewart / Hearst Connecticut Media

Talking to Darien and New Canaan football players about their annual Turkey Bowl clash on Thanksgiving reveals a common thread: This is not just a game, it’s a life moment they’ve been looking forward to for a long time.

“I remember watching this game in elementary school and middle school,” Darien senior Miles Drake said. “I’ve always wanted to get the chance to play in one and now that it’s here, I’m very excited.

“We’ve all grown up watching this game,” New Canaan senior Conor Bailey said. “I’m preparing to see a lot of people, and hopefully it gets the adrenaline going and gets everyone excited.”

New Canaan will host this year’s edition of the Turkey Bowl at 10 a.m., Thanksgiving, at Dunning Field. As always, tickets sold out quickly, even with extra bleachers added behind one end zone to accommodate the large crowd.

Top-ranked Darien comes in undefeated at 9-0, while No. 3 New Canaan is 8-1, the only blip being a 20-17 loss to Wilton on Oct. 23. The Rams hold the edge historically at 53-38-2 and have won the last three Turkey Bowls.

But throw that all out the window, according to New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli.

“No matter what the records are, it’s always a great game,” Marinelli said. “It’s two proud communities with great football and athletic programs. There’s an excitement around this game and it’s really all that’s good about high school football.”

This year’s game is the 94th meeting of the rivals since they first played in 1928. That year, the game was played at the Ox Ridge Hunt Club in Darien and was won by the Blue Wave 26-12. At the time, New Canaan wasn’t known as the Rams, but as the “Red and Black” for their school colors.

In 1994, the game became an annual rite of Thanksgiving and has remained on the holiday since. The winner holds the Coaches Memorial Trophy, named for former coaches Joe Sikorski of New Canaan and John Maher of Darien, for the next year.

There are always playoff implications attached to the game as well. Unlike the past few seasons, when New Canaan needed a victory to officially clinch, both the Wave and Rams are already in the Class LL playoffs.

Darien will have a quarterfinal home game no matter what, but can clinch the No. 1 seed with a win.

New Canaan is currently third and could move up as high as first with a win. Even with a loss, the Rams could host a quarterfinal game, but that would depend on the outcome of other games around the state.

Darien’s Mike Forget has been involved in the game as the defensive coordinator for Rob Trifone, and this will be his first Turkey Bowl as the head coach.

His advice is to the players is to try and block out the hype, and focus on the game.

“They have to prepare for the noise level and everything that’s going on around them and try to shut it all out,” Forget said. “Have faith in what they’ve been taught, and they’ll come out on top if they do so.”

The game shapes up as a strength vs. strength battle.

The Blue Wave’s offense has been explosive behind the quarterback Drake, running back Tighe Cummiskey and receiver Matt Mincius, averaging 44 points per game. They even scored six touchdowns in a 42-14 blowout of No. 2 St. Joseph.

“They have so many good athletes,” Marinelli said. “The quarterback is certainly one of the best in our league if not the state and they have great receivers. They’re well-balanced, they can run the ball and they can throw it.”

Marinelli pointed to Minicus as one of the biggest threats. The senior receiver has 37 catches for 649 yards and 14 touchdowns, scoring in all but one game this season. He had eight TDs during a two-game span against St. Joseph and Ludlowe.

“He’s certainly kept us awake at nights trying to figure out how to stop him,” Marinelli said. “You just try to limit him, I don’t know if you can stop him.”

On the other side, New Canaan’s defense has been the best in the FCIAC. The Rams have allowed just 79 points - an average of 8.8 per game. Opposing teams haven’t scored more than two touchdowns in any game, and six times New Canaan has allowed one or no TDs.

“We’ll try to find the match-ups that work for us,” Forget said. “(New Canaan defensive coordinator) Chris Silvestri does a nice job over there defensively and they’re putting up some low numbers. We’re certainly going to find out who wins that battle. It’s a good offense and against a good defense and we’ll see who comes out on top.”

New Canaan’s defense features several standouts, including linebacker Vin Cognetta, the team leader in tackles (70), forced fumbles (3) and interceptions (3).

Linebacker Chad Russo has racked up a team-high 12 sacks and 12 tackles for a loss to go along with 55 tackles, and another LB, Brandon Schmitz (61 tackles), has also been key. Senior Ned Brady (6-5, 240) is mainly on the offensive line, but shifts to defense at times.

New Canaan’s offense has featured the versatile Cognetta (578 rushing yards), who had 164 yards in a 28-18 win over Daniel Hand in week two, and senior quarterback Henry Cunney who has passed for 1,185 yards and 12 TDs, while rushing for five scores.

The Wave defense is led by senior DE David Evanchick with 13 sacks, 17 tackles for a loss and 59 tackles, DE Cole Murphy with eight sacks and 59 tackles, and LB Sean Quick, who has a team-high 65 tackles.

Whatever the numbers, community is always a big part of the Turkey Bowl, with kids from the Darien Junior Football League and New Canaan Youth Football watching from the stands.

“They come to all our games and they’re always supporting us,” Darien senior Christian Alliegro said. “Everybody knows the history, the state championships we have, and what this game means. It’s a big game and we’ve been watching it since we were little.”

And for the players, Marinelli, who coached his first game against Darien back in 1981, has some advice.

“Just enjoy it,” Marinelli said. “Enjoy that all these people from the community are coming out to watch you play and root for you. Don’t get caught up in it or be nervous - just play and have fun.”

david.stewart@hearstmediact.com; @dstewartsports