NORWALK >> It was a year ago that goaltender Ryan Cornell and defenseman Rock Stewart hatched the play which would come to define Darien’s third-consecutive FCIAC lacrosse championship. The teammates worked on the play’s choreography in practice, but never could pull it off in a game.
They finally figured it out Thursday night. And they couldn’t have picked a better time.
Their perfectly-executed hidden ball trick led to the eventual deciding goal in Darien’s 9-5 FCIAC title victory over arch rival New Canaan at Jack Casagrande Field.
“That’s a highlight reel that everybody will be thinking about for years to come,” Darien coach Jeff Brameier said of the trick play. “It’s just awesome that they made that happen.”
Cornell had just made one of his 15 saves midway through the third quarter. Stewart snared the rebound in traffic and raced over to his goalie. Just about everybody in the stadium believed Cornell took the ball in an attempt to clear it himself. Cornell certainly looked like he had it, the way he came out of the crease and started juking New Canaan defenders.
But Cornell didn’t have the ball. He never touched it. And, before anyone realized what had happened, Stewart had fed attackman Colin Minicus for an easy goal and a 6-2 lead with 6 minutes, 24 seconds left in the third quarter.
“I guess I just sold it good enough,” Cornell said wryly. “Luckily, Colin was paying attention and was able to finish. That was great.”
For his part, Minicus didn’t know the trick was afoot, either. But he had his suspicions.
“I’ve seen Rock do it in practice before and it didn’t work in practice,” he said. “When I saw Ryan running into the middle of everyone and he didn’t lose the ball, I thought something was weird. Then I saw Rock coming down the seam I definitely suspected something and I just hoped he had it.”
New Canaan (14-4) wasn’t completely frazzled. The Rams fought the good fight, but ultimately couldn’t recover. Darien (19-0), the unbeaten No. 1-ranked team in the state, completed its first FCIAC three-peat and a league-best 15th title overall.
“This is the first time we’ve ever three-peated. When you talk about the history of our program, they just made their mark,” Brameier said. “It’s been a goal of ours all year. They knew what was at stake. They had the bullseye and they came to play today.”
Minicus led Darien’s infamous fast-break offense with four goals (including three straight in the third quarter) and Jake Kirby had two. Meanwhile, Darien’s defense — led by Cornell’s MVP performance between the pipes and All-American Mark Evanchick blanket coverage — mostly kept New Canaan’s top attackmen off the scoreboard.
The Rams’ five goals were all scored by different players. Goaltender Drew Morris made 10 saves.
“In the first half they could have had six or seven goals, maybe even eight or nine,” Minicus said. “Ryan kept us in it and we knew we had to repay him. We always have confidence in our offense. But we have a great defense. It’s the best defense in the nation.”
New Canaan led only briefly 2-1 in the second quarter on a goal from Clayton Burt. But Darien scored six consecutive goals over the second and third quarters to take a commanding 7-2 lead. New Canaan got within three goals twice in the second half, but never closer.
“Look, we won every facet of that game,” New Canaan coach Chip Buzzeo said. “We won the faceoffs, we won the groundballs, we cleared 100 percent. We rode them. They failed to clear five or six times. If you looked at the stat sheet and not the score, you would have said New Canaan won.
“But lacrosse is about who puts the ball in the net. They scored when they had to and those fast-break goals. It’s hard to save those.”
Both teams go into their respective state tournaments as heavy favorites to claim championships. New Canaan, Brameier said, is a slam dunk to repeat as Class M champions. So this showdown — once again — figures to be the retroactive state championship game.
“If we hadn’t won this game, regardless of whether we’d won Class L, New Canaan would have gone on to win Class M — and they’ll win Class M, nobody’s going to beat them in M — and they’d know this was for the state championship.
“Now, we need to take care of business. We’ve got some great opponents coming up in our (Class L) draw. And there’s no easy opponent in Class L. So we’ll enjoy this and get back to work on Wednesday.”
DARIEN 9, NEW CANAAN 5
DARIEN 1 2 4 2 — 9
NEW CANAAN 1 1 1 2 — 5
Goals: (DAR) Colin Minicus 4, Jake Kirby 2, Jack Kniffin, Liam Rischmann, Finlay Collins; (NC) Clayton Burt, Peter Swindell, Jack Hoelzer, Kyle Smith, Andrew Bauersfeld, Nick Crovatto.
Saves: (DAR) Ryan Cornell 15; (NC) Drew Morris 10.
— DarienAthFoundation (@DarienAF) May 27, 2016