New Canaan’s Kieran Buck (12) gets away from a Darien tackler after recovering a fumble in the fourth quarter of the Turkey Bowl in Stamford. Harrison Skyrm (55) knocked the ball loose on the play. — Dave Stewart photo
The New Canaan Rams have had their backs to the wall for the past two months of the football season. So when they take the field for the Class LL championship game against the heavily-favored Greenwich Cardinals at 10 a.m. Saturday at Boyle Stadium, they should feel right at home.
Seemingly dead in the water after starting the season 3-2, New Canaan (10-2) is back in the state finals for the 11th time in 13 seasons. The title game will feature a father-son coaching match-up of New Canaan’s Lou Marinelli and Greenwich’s John Marinelli.
New Canaan senior co-captain Garrett Braden (1) pressures Fairfield Prep QB John Iaropoli during the CIAC Class LL semifinals on Dec. 2 at Rafferty Stadium. — Dave Stewart photo
A 42-14 loss to Greenwich (12-0) on Oct. 6 is New Canaan’s last defeat, and at that point it was put up or shut up for the Rams.
“We all realized we were in a do-or-die situation,” senior co-captain Jack Conley said. “The playoffs started for us right after our second loss.”
One of the biggest factors during New Canaan’s seven-game win streak has been the defense, which has found its stride, allowing seven or fewer points five times during that stretch and forcing eight turnovers during the past three games.
Defensive coordinator Chris Silvestri, a 1994 graduate of NCHS, said the coaches were able to get the players in the right spots following the loss to the Cardinals.
“We just took a look at our personnel and instead of trying to have them do things that they’d never done before, we took a look at their strengths and played to them,” Silvestri said. “That took some of the thinking out of everything and let them focus on playing football.
“All of the pieces to the puzzle started fitting, right around the Norwalk game (a 34-0 win). From there, we’ve just taken that to the next level.”
New Canaan’s defense features three Div. I-bound players in DE Garrett Braden (6-foot-2, 225 pounds) and massive linemen Jack Stewart (6-5, 275) and Conley (6-7, 315). Braden will be playing at Rice next season, with Stewart heading to Michigan and Conley going to Boston College. Both Conley and Stewart are also part of the O-line.
“We’ve learned how to play together,” said Braden, who had four tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble against in a 38-7 semifinal win over Prep. “There was a lot of talent, but we really hadn’t found our identity yet. Now, we’re peaking and we’re all on the same page. We built a chemistry and found our swagger and it’s been great.”
“We didn’t just lose, we lost by a lot,” Stewart said of the Rams’ early struggles. “We got blown out in those two games. Our defense especially learned a lot. It was rough and we weren’t getting to the ball the way we should be. Now we have the passion and we’re on a little bit of a redemption tour. We couldn’t be playing any better as a team.”
While those three are the big names, the defensive performance has been a true team effort, featuring linemen Harrison Skyrm, Keiran Buck and Ryan Krolikowski, along with LBs Ben Schneider, AJ Rakoczy and Sergiy Babenkov, among others.
The secondary has also been sharp, led by safeties Drew Guida, who has a team-high six interceptions, and Will Rechtermann, and corners Charlie Cunney, Nate Sibbett and Chris Canet.
Silvestri credited assistant coach AJ Albano, in his first year after spending eight years as head coach at Brien McMahon High School, with helping to get the defensive backs into form.
“The secondary has been playing at a different level,” Silvestri said. “AJ Albano has done a fantastic job with them this year. They’ve been playing at a high level even back to the St. Joe’s game. The score (a 28-0 loss) didn’t indicate it, but they did their best to keep us in that game. They’ve been playing at that high level pretty much the whole season. They’re honed in on their keys and they fly around.”
The Rams have been opportunistic, with four takeaways in a 17-14 Turkey Bowl victory against rival Darien on Thanksgiving, and three more in the state semifinals. For the season, New Canaan has 17 picks and has forced 13 fumbles.
Cunney opened the Turkey Bowl with two interceptions in the first quarter to set the tone.
That game was a turning point for the Rams, who were facing a then-unbeaten Darien team which was ranked No. 1 in the state.
“Everyone doubted us,” Conley said. “Even people in our school were saying you guys are going to lose and there’s no way you’re beating Darien. All we needed was each other because when we go out there, we all trust each other and we know we can do it. On defense, we had each other’s backs, everyone was filling holes, and we played for each other.”
“That game was huge for us,” Stewart said. “Historically, we’ve come out slow and then come back, but this Turkey Bowl was really different that way. We had Charlie’s two picks in the first quarter, and that really got our defense going. That told us we can do this and we can beat Darien.”
A pair of forced fumbles were arguably the Rams’ biggest defensive plays of the season.
With New Canaan trailing Darien 14-10 in the fourth quarter, Skyrm sacked Wave QB Cooper Hancock and knocked the ball loose. Buck recovered and set up the winning play, a 16-yard pass from Drew Pyne to Wyatt Wilson.
In the Class LL semifinals, New Canaan had dominated the first half, but led just 10-0 with Prep driving at the Rams’ 22-yard line. Braden came around the end and stripped the ball from Jesuits’ QB John Iaropoli. Buck again recovered and, two plays later, Pyne again hit Wilson for a 52-yard touchdown and a 17-0 lead at halftime.
“We knew how close we were to our goal,” Braden said. “Any team going into the season wants to win a championship, and we knew how close we were to the finals. We focused on Fairfield Prep and we did what we had to do. For every person on the team, we wanted to keep playing together. More than anything else, we were playing for each other.”
In Greenwich, the Rams will face their stiffest challenge of the year.
Cardinals’ quarterback Gavin Muir has passed for 2,215 yards and 28 touchdowns, and running back Tysen Comizio has 890 yards from scrimmage — 642 on the ground and 248 through the air.
The Cards also boast numerous weapons at wide receiver, led by Lance Large (33 catches, 537 yards), and Stephen Bennett (28 catches, 459 yards). Five players have at least 250 receiving yards.
“They’re one of the better offenses I’ve ever seen,” Silvestri said of Greenwich. “Their quarterback, their running back, their tackles do a great job and there’s really no weaknesses in what they do. For our kids, it comes down to shedding blocks, tackling and covering guys. Johnny’s done a fantastic job there. It’s really impressive.”
“They have an extremely dynamic offense,” Braden said. “They’re very deep and it seems like they always have an answer. We just have to go in and play fundamentally-sound game, but also be ready for seeing new things and whatever they throw at us. As long as we do what we do best, we should be fine.”
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