Saturday’s CIAC Class LL final between top-seeded Greenwich and third-seeded Darien marks the first time the two FCIAC rivals will meet with the state title on the line and their only game against each other this season. That’s right, the Blue Wave and Cardinals weren’t on each other’s regular-season schedule, making this season-ending matchup even more intriguing.
Here’s a breakdown of Saturday’s winner-take-all game between the Cardinals and the two-time defending champion Blue Wave, with some opinions from Staples coach Marce Petroccio, who knows what it’s like to be on the sideline during the state final.
Greenwich — John Marinelli (12-0 this season); Darien Rob Trifone (11-1 this season)
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Greenwich registered a 31-7 win over eighth-seeded Fairfield Prep in the quarterfinal-round, then eliminated fourth-seeded South Windsor, 36-7, in the semifinals. Darien downed sixth-seeded East Hartford in the quarterfinals, 30-10, and upended No. 7 West Haven in the semifinals, 27-13.
CHAMPIONSHIP HISTORY: Greenwich has garnered eight state championships (2007, 2006, 1999, 1991, 1990, 1983, 1981, 1974). Darien has captured six state titles (2016, 2015, 1996, 1992, 1991, 1979).
WHEN GREENWICH HAS THE BALL: “They do so much so well,” Petroccio said. “They have big, tall, athletic receivers and a great quarterback and an outstanding running game — they can beat you in multiple ways and come at you from all angles. Just when you are set to defend the pass, they will hit you with an inside run and force you to defend their top back Tysen Comizio.”
WHEN DARIEN HAS THE BALL: “They have skilled receivers, who run very precise routes and after the ball is caught, the other receivers do a tremendous job of blocking down field,” Petroccio said. “Their quarterback (Jack Joyce) is an excellent passer, who is a tough kid and really good runner and gains a lot of yards on the ground.”
GREENWICH’S OFFENSE VS. DARIEN’S DEFENSE: Something has to give here, as the Cardinals enter the game averaging a robust 44 points per game while Darien is yielding a meager seven points.
Junior linebacker Connor Fay and senior linebacker Kevin Grune are the Blue Wave’s leading tacklers while senior defensive linemen Mike Neary, Drew Evanchick, Sean O’Malley and Charlie Zuro have made it difficult for the opposition to run the ball and quarterbacks to get the ball to their receivers due to their consistent pressure.
“Connor and Kevin have been the rocks of our defense and our defensive linemen have been underrated all year,” Trifone said. “We graduated key guys from last year, but these guys have answered the call.”
The Cardinals run a spread offense, orchestrated by quarterback Gavin Muir. The junior has passed for 2,621 yards with 31 touchdowns and just six interceptions. Yet despite those glossy numbers, the Cardinals also like to run the ball behind Comizio, who has produced a breakout junior season (1,266 yards, 105 yards per game, 24 total touchdowns).
“I think this game is going to be won in the trenches,” Petroccio said. “Both defensive lines are very good to say the least. Whether or not Greenwich can move the ball against a stout Darien defense will be interesting to see. Whether or not Greenwich’s guards and center can get a push on Darien’s defensive tackles and eventually up to the linebacker level is key.”
Said Marinelli: “We have to stay on schedule offensively. The first couple of playoff games we haven’t played our best on offense, so we really have to put ourselves in manageable situations and gain positive yards each down.”
DARIEN’S OFFENSE VS. GREENWICH’S DEFENSE: Like the Cardinals, scoring hasn’t exactly been an issue for the Blue Wave. Darien’s spread offense, which isn’t quite as up-tempo as Greenwich’s, has produced 36 points a game, behind Joyce (over 2,000 yards passing, 400 yards rushing) and senior running back Mitch Pryor (more than 600 yards rushing).
“Can Darien block Greenwich’s quick defensive ends coming off the edge? That’s one of the questions,” Petroccio said. “Joyce is a legitimate passer, but like everyone, he needs time to throw. He’s also a powerful runner, who like Muir, has the ability to just take off and run, so Greenwich has to be aware of that.”
Senior Tyler Blizzard and junior Gramoz Bici have registered 12 and 12.5 sacks, respectively, for the Cards, who have also seen junior Jack Feda and senior Robert Lanni emerge as playmakers at linebacker.
“Darien is going to have to deal with those two defensive ends, who are as good a pair as they come,” Petroccio said. “Darien’s offensive line will have to be really physical against Greenwich’s front.”
GAME CHANGER, GREENWICH: Comizio, who Trifone said, is “the best back I’ve seen this year,” can open things up for the Cardinals offensively if he’s able to break a couple of runs, or consistently gain yards and pick up first downs.
GAME CHANGER, DARIEN: Joyce has efficiently guided Darien’s offense all season and has the ability to buy time with his legs when pressured, enabling him to make big plays.
X-FACTOR: Greenwich senior placekicker Zach Moore has converted 10 of his 13 field goal attempts, his longest coming from 44 yards. The Cardinals feel comfortable with putting him out there late in a close game. Two-time defending champion Darien has the experience edge, having played in the state final the previous two years, winning both games.
OUTLOOK: “This is a Clash of the Titans,” Petroccio said. “What you really want during this final Saturday game is your best players playing their best game, but it doesn’t always happen that way. How both staffs handle this type of game and deal with what happens during the course of the game will be interesting to see. I think it’s going to be an epic matchup that’s going to come down to who does a better job up front.”