‘As good as it gets’: Trifone has special connection with this year’s Darien football team
DARIEN — Nine years ago, a group of third-graders teamed up for the first time and began playing in the Darien Junior Football League under coach Rob Trifone.
Those kids are now high school seniors and this weekend, they’ll play together one final time on the state’s biggest stage.
The third-seeded Blue Wave (11-1) will square off against No. 1 Newtown (12-0) for the CIAC Class LL championship at Trumbull High School at 3 p.m., Saturday.
Darien, which won state titles from 2015 to 2017, is playing in the state final for the sixth time in seven years. This year’s trip is a little more emotional for Trifone and his group of young men, which includes his youngest son, Mark, the team’s senior center.
“It’s as good as it gets, and I mean that,” Trifone said as his Wave prepared for the final this week. “They’re like sons to me, and they literally treat me like a dad. Like my own son, I’ve been able to see them go from being 8-year-olds to middle school, kind of awkward, to being freshmen and the low men on the totem pole, and now to young men.
“When you can see that kind of evolution in the young men that you’ve coached, it’s a wonderful thing. It’s wonderful to see them from (grades) 9 to 12, so to see them from 3 to 12 is even more special.”
The DJFL has played a huge part in the Blue Wave’s success for many years. It’s where the players get their start, developing their skills, finding their spots and getting ready to represent Darien on the football field.
The current seniors have had the added benefit of learning from Trifone, a veteran high school coach who passed the 250-career-win milestone late this season and now has 252. The coach estimated that of Darien’s 22 seniors, about 16 have played for him since the youth leagues.
“We’ve been unbelievably blessed,” senior co-captain and linebacker JH Slonieski said. “This group that we’ve been with has been playing for him all the way through youth, so to have (coach Trifone) as a mentor both as a coach and a father figure has been extremely rewarding. He gives us great advice on and off the field.”
“It’s so lucky just having him coach us from such a young age,” senior co-captain and linebacker Sam Wilson said. “We all know him so well. He loves us and we love him. It’s been so great to have that chemistry.”
“It’s a very special time being part of this,” Mark Trifone said. “My dad has been coaching the seniors since the third grade, so we all know him really well. It’s a very fun time for us right now.”
The Blue Wave has had a family feeling in many ways, and Trifone said he’s been grateful to have had the opportunity to coach his sons: Mark on this year’s team, twins Christian and Bobby of the Class of 2016, and stepson Kevin Joy of the Class of 2008.
“As a dad, getting a chance to share the thing that you’re most passionate about with your sons — I’ll be forever grateful,” Trifone said. “We’ve been fortunate enough to have some success along the way, and that makes it even sweeter.”
“It’s been a very fun thing to have the privilege of playing for him,” Mark Trifone said. “My favorite part is when we go home and I can talk about it with him — talk about practice and different things like that. It’s been very fun.”
The chemistry and experience of the players has served them well this season.
Last year, they were 9-0 when they lost their final two games, including a 25-15 defeat in Newtown in the Class LL quarterfinals. That ended a three-year run of state championships and the players were not happy about it.
“We spoke as a group of juniors shortly after that game and they were pissed,” coach Trifone said. “They were very motivated. I hate to say it but sometimes you have to lose in order to remember what it feels like. That hurt and it continues to hurt.”
When the Wave did lose a game this year — to New Canaan in the Turkey Bowl — they quickly recovered, beating Greenwich and Southington, both for the second time this season.
“Whenever we’ve felt like we might be slacking this year, coach has said remember how you felt on that bus ride from Newtown,” Slonieski said. “That’s been our fire this entire year. Newtown’s a great program, great team, so we’re looking forward to seeing them again on Saturday.”
“It’s tough coming off of the big rivalry game when you lose, but after that experience last year, we knew we had to put it behind us,” Wilson said. “We still had the playoffs and a shot at the championship. So instead of worrying about it, we just moved on to the next game.”
Trifone also pointed out that the key to the team isn’t just the award-winners and headline grabbers, but also the players who are in the background and may not even see the field during a game.
“They may not play as much, but they do everything it takes to make us successful,” Trifone said. “They know they’re still part of the team. I’ve made it a point several times this year to let them know how grateful we are that they contribute the way they do. That’s part of what makes this team so special.”
When they kick off against Newtown, the Wave seniors will be focused on what is on front of them, but by the end, win or lose, the long journey since the third grade will have ended.
“It’s really kind of surreal,” Slonieski said. “We’ve had so many games going out there together and you always know there’s going to be a next game or a next practice. We’re going to go out and give it our all but it’s a different feeling because we know there’s nothing on Sunday.”
For coach Trifone, it’ll be a moment he’ll remember forever.
“I’ve been blessed to have been through enough state championships and I remember driving home on the bus one year,” Trifone said. “I kept turning around and looking at all the faces, because I didn’t want to forget.”