Ken Strong Stadium, West Haven, Saturday, 2:30 p.m.
- No. 7 Ridgefield 10-2
- No. 1 Darien 12-0
- Ridgefield: KEVIN CALLAHAN (17th year, 124-62-1)
- Darien: Rob Trifone (10th year, 87-21 [219-81-2 career record])
Ridgefield (3rd appearance, 2-0): 2002 def. Windsor 14-13; 1983 def. Hall 20-7.
Darien (14th appearance, 5-8): 2015 def. Shelton 39-7; 2014 lost to New Canaan 21-20; 2013 lost to New Canaan 44-12; 2008 lost to New Canaan 26-7; 1999 lost to Weaver 69-26; 1998 lost to Seymour 14-6; 1997 lost to Bloomfield 39-21; 1996 def. Bloomfield 21-16; 1992 def. Stratford 30-0; 1991 def. Berlin 35-22; 1989 lost to Daniel Hand 34-28; 1987 lost to East Catholic 14-0; 1979 def. Bristol Central 27-16.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
YOU SHOULD KNOW
This is an all-FCIAC affair. Darien, the defending champion, has won 25 consecutive games and has a shot at winning back-to-back No. 1 rankings with a victory over Ridgefield.
The two did not meet during the regular season.
Darien is making its fourth straight trip to a state final. The Blue Wave defeated Shelton in the final last season to win their first championship since 1996.
Darien lost to FCIAC rival New Canaan in a state championship game in 2014, 2013 and in 2008. Class M finalist St. Joseph is the last non-New Canaan FCIAC team to beat Darien, which it did in 2012.
This has been anything but an easy season, however. As the Blue Wave retooled and adjusted to almost an entirely new lineup from the previous state championship team, head coach Rob Trifone was suspended for a month for allegedly slapping one of his players on the helmet during a victory over Norwich Free Academy. Darien’s administration originally gave Trifone two weeks, but then added two more when it reviewed the case.
“That’s everything him being out there with us and when he couldn’t be there we knew that he was hurt,” said senior captain Andrew Stueber, an all-state lineman who is committed to play at Michigan. “So we would go to his house and stop by his classroom and say how much he means to us. It was pretty tough without him, but the team kind of rallied together and it kind of grew us as a team.
“He took ownership of it. He knows what he did. He took the suspension. To give him two more weeks after that we kind of shook our heads at it. We didn’t really understand it but we just put our heads down and realized we the best way to move on was to keep winning. that was the best thing we could do.”
Trifone says he was touched by the way his players supported him throughout the suspension.
“It’s what lifted me through that whole event,” Trifone said. “Knowing that the boys that I spend every day with, that knew my character and backed me 100 percent. … They were forced to grow up a little bit and they were so mature about it. Incredibly mature.”
Trifone returned in November and the Blue Wave held off a rally by New Canaan to win their fifth-consecutive Thanksgiving Day game to earn the top seed in Class LL. They defeated FCIAC foe Greenwich in the quarterfinals and previously unbeaten Southington in the semifinals by allowing a combined 10 points.
Darien’s defense is one of the stingiest in the state, led by Stueber, Cord Fox (73 tackles, 10 sacks), Fay (12 sacks) and Justin Plank on the defensive line, Herget (four interceptions), junior Nick Green (77 tackles, three interceptions) and Collins (85 tackles, five sacks) at linebacker.
The Blue Wave offense averages 41.4 points per game. The line is led by Stueber and Fox on the left side, center Brian Keating, who’s committed to play at UConn as a long snapper, and Mike Neary and Charlie Zuro on the right.
“Across the board, it’s probably the best offensive line I’ve ever had,” Trifone said. “A player like Stueber comes once in a lifetime. He’s a special kid. But the surrounding cast has been great. What’s happened to our program the last four and five years is that the linemen have taken on an identity of their own.”
Collins, the son of a former Navy SEAL, has rushed 116 times for 786 yards and 12 touchdowns, becoming one of the state’s best two-way players at tailback and linebacker.
— Sean Patrick Bowley (@SPBowley) September 10, 2016
“Finlay has an uncanny way of being in the right place at the right time,” Trifone said. “He lets the game come to him. He doesn’t pressure himself. He lets the game come to him. We show him the game plan and he’s in the right place at the right time.
“He’s a special kid. The team looks to him when we need a big play and he accepts it as humbly as they come.”
Peters, in his first year as a starter, has completed 186 of 299 passes for 3,049 yards and 31 touchdowns against just eight interceptions. Herget (35 receptions, 640 yards, six touchdowns), Green (32-527-6), senior Spencer Jarecke (28-377-3) and junior Max Grant (26-632-8) are among the standouts on a dangerous receiving corps.
Meanwhile, Ridgefield came in with high hopes thanks to a veteran class, which had narrowly missed the playoffs last season, and the return of coach Kevin Callahan from a one-year suspension.
Yet, the Tigers started the season 3-2 with losses to New Canaan and Trinity Catholic. Since then they’ve won seven-consecutive games and knocked off a pair of SCC teams — West Haven and Shelton — to advance to its first state championship game since winning the Class L title in 2002.
“It’s been pretty ridiculous,” Fowler said of his team’s playoff run. “It’s pretty insane. I can’t really describe it.”
The Tigers run an explosive spread offense with Fowler leading the show. He injured his shoulder during the team’s loss to New Canaan in Week 2 and didn’t return until Oct. 29 vs. Bridgeport Central while junior Greg Gatto deftly filled in and led the Tigers to three victories.
“Having him back is definitely great,” receiver Chris Longo said of Fowler. “He’s a leader. He calls audibles. He’s very confident. And he’ll run the ball. He’s not afraid to run the ball.”
Fowler has completed 112 of 175 passes for 1,738 yards and 22 touchdowns. Longo is the team’s leading receiver (73-1,047-7), while Palmer (43-731-12) and Lowe (43-719-11) are also weapons on the receiving corps.
“We have 23 seniors on the team, which is huge,” Fowler said. “Senior laden teams are usually successful so it’s definitely nice to have. We knew we had a lot of talent coming back so we were excited to get on the field and show what we could do.”
Palmer (122-969-9) is Ridgefield’s leading rusher. Palmer broke his collarbone and missed all of last season but has come back with a vengeance his senior year, as a receiver, tailback and kick returner. “We knew he was good, so when we got him back so we’ve tried to use him effectively,” Callahan said. “He’s real fast — he’s like third in the FCIAC in the 100 — so he’s deceiving because he’s a small kid. That’s helped us.”
The week after the team’s second loss to Trinity Catholic — which put the team in playoff crisis mode — Palmer burned Staples with three touchdowns in the opening minutes of an eventual 42-7 victory which vaulted the team on its current seven-game win streak.
“They’re very good,” Trifone said of Ridgefield. “I don’t know at what point in the season that they moved No. 2 (Palmer) from kind of a slot to running back. But, that changed that team. Not to take anything away from any other of their players, but that kid is special. He gets it done on the ground and in the air.
“And obviously you have Longo and Lowe and that QB (Fowler) is slippery. He moves around so we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Ridgefield runs a strict two-platoon system, which means players only go one way. Rare does anyone play both offense and defense. While the big names are on the offensive side, the defense has played bend-but-don’t-break.
It’s led by linebackers Noah Isaacson, a junior who leads the team with 76 tackles and six sacks, junior Alex Cali (72 tackles) and senior Patrick Lang (71 tackles). Seniors Tommy Macmannis and Aiden Spearman lead the secondary with a combined seven interceptions.
The Tigers have the talent to pull the upset, but Ridgefield must find a way to consistently move the ball against a Darien defense that’s been impressive all season.
“I think we have a shot at it,” Fowler said. “They’re an incredible team so it’s going to be a challenge. We have to have a great week of practice and watching film so. They’re very well coached. They don’t make a lot of mistakes. So we definitely can’t be a team that shoots ourselves in the foot or make costly penalties. We just have to take care of business.”
–Mike Pucci contributed
- POOCH’S PICK — Darien.
- SPB’S PICK — Darien 38-24
- CALPREPS PROJECTION — Darien 35-28
Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.