Turkey Bowl XXV: Darien football seeks perfection, New Canaan seeks playoff berth
Lou Marinelli has led the New Canaan football team through 41 games against the Darien Blue Wave and, truth be told, the rivalry never gets old for the veteran head coach.
While Marinelli has been through enough of the wars to remain cool and collected on Thanksgiving morning, the electricity and hype surrounding the annual Turkey Bowl clash can cause players’ emotions to run a bit high.
The answer to that, Marinelli said, is just focus and play the game.
“It’s like the Hoosiers movie where they measure the hoop and it’s still 10 feet and it’s still the same width,” New Canaan head coach Lou Marinelli said. “In any big game, you’ve got to remember, from youth up until now, it’s still the same game. All the skills and techniques that you’ve learned to this point — now you’ve got to put them to good use.”
Both teams have plenty to play for when the rivals clash at 10:30 a.m., Thanksgiving Day, at Stamford’s Boyle Stadium.
New Canaan (7-2) is fighting for its playoff life, needing a victory to qualify for the CIAC Class LL tournament, while Darien (9-0) is in pursuit of perfection, as well as a quarterfinal home game.
Like Marinelli, Darien head coach Rob Trifone is a veteran of the rivalry, and wants his players to maintain what he calls “controlled hype.”
“The kids in the stands can paint their face and wear crazy hairdos and be crazy,” Trifone said. “You can’t be. You have to be controlled because you have a whole game plan you have to execute which means constant focus.”
There’s also the matter of last year’s contest, won by the Rams 27-0, which is surely in the minds of the Blue Wave players. Darien had three starters suspended in that game, and the loss snapped a 34-game win streak. The Wave rebounded to win the Class LL title.
Revenge, however, isn’t the first thing on the Wave’s mind.
“At the end of the day, it’s another regular season game and a game which will help us do better in the playoffs,” Darien senior co-captain Connor Fay said. “That’s the ultimate goal: A state championship. No one would deny that it would be sweet to beat them, especially after last year, but the bottom line is we’re looking to put ourselves in the best position for a state championship.”
“It is a must-win game,” New Canaan senior co-captain Quintin O’Connell said. “We’ve know we’ve got to win and we believe in ourselves. At this point, it doesn’t matter who we’re playing, we’re playing ourselves. If we execute the way we know we’re able to, then we’ll be confident in that game.”
The most intriguing match-up for Darien is with New Canaan’s offense, which is led by O’Connell, a star athlete who can damage the opposition as a receiver or as a runner, and junior quarterback Drew Pyne, who has thrown for 25 touchdowns and nearly 2,000 yards this fall.
O’Connell has more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage this year, with 53 receptions for 830 yards, and 23 rushes for 198 yards. He’s also scored 15 touchdowns.
New Canaan struggled in early losses to St. Joseph and Greenwich, but has clicked in the past four games.
“Unfortunately for Darien, I think they’ve figured it out,” Trifone said of the Rams. “They’re peaking at the right time and hat’s off to them. If you’re a playoff team, you want to be peaking in November and that’s what I see from New Canaan right now.”
Darien’s defense represents New Canaan’s toughest challenge to date. The Rams have the size advantage on the line, which includes Jack Conley (6-foot-7, 315 pounds) and Jack Stewart (6-5, 275), but the Wave has used its speed, as well as a game plan from defensive coordinator Mike Forget, to hold teams to just 61 points in nine games.
The Wave defense is led by a linebacking corps which includes Fay (6-0, 215) and Sam Wilson (5-10, 180), and a D-Line which features Alex Quirk (6-4, 205). Above all, Darien makes few mistakes.
“Playing Darien is like playing a tennis player who just keeps hitting it back to you,” Marinelli said. “They just wait for you to make a mistake. They’re so well-disciplined and coached, that you’ve got to make sure that you don’t implode yourself. We’ve got to be disciplined and take our opportunities when they’re presented.”
Offensively, Wave quarterback Cooper Hancock has had a remarkable year after winning a QB battle during the preseason, passing for 1,680 yards and 19 touchdowns. Will Rolapp leads the receivers with 570 yards and six TDs, while the two-headed rushing attack includes junior Will Kirby and senior Andrew Lucas.
Linebacker and senior co-captain Garrett Braden (6-2, 225) leads New Canaan’s defense.
In the end, the game may come down simply to who can maintain their poise the best. Either way, It’s a day players on both sides have waited for a long time.
“The game is basically what you dream of all the way up through DJFL (Darien Junior Football League),” Darien senior co-captain Bruce Ferguson said. “This was a little bit of a problem for us last year — we had so much emotion coming into this game. We’ve got to find a way to control those emotions, stick to our game, and pretend it’s like a practice. We’ve just got to play confident.”
“I’ve played against Darien since I was a little kid and I’ve always watched the rivalry game,” Braden said. “We feel like we’re ready for what they have coming and we have a good game plan. We’re ready to go and just bring it to them.”