When Darien defeated Greenwich in a much-anticipated regular-season showdown on Oct. 26, the thought by many was that FCIAC football rivals would meet again at some point during the postseason.
Well, the CIAC Class LL Tournament quarterfinals commences Wednesday and the third-seeded Blue Wave and sixth-seeded Cardinals will indeed, face each other for the right to advance to the semifinals.
“We’re pumped, I’m pumped,” Cardinals first-year coach Anthony Morello said. “A lot of people around the area say it’s a shame that they’re having this game in the quarterfinals. But from my point of view, it adds an element of excitement in the quarterfinals. If you are going to play the best team in the state, why not play in the quarterfinals?”
The defending Class LL champion Cardinals and Blue Wave enter Wednesday’s 6:30 p.m. quarterfinals at Darien with identical 9-1 records. The Blue Wave, who were ranked No. 1 in Class LL prior to dropping a 20-0 decision to arch rival New Canaan on Thanksgiving, moved down to No. 3 in the rankings following the loss. Greenwich kept its No. 6 ranking with a 38-14 road victory against Staples on Thanksgiving morning.
“They are No. 6, we are 3, so we have to play each other in the quarterfinals, that’s the way it goes,” Darien coach Rob Trifone said. “Greenwich is one of the best teams in Connecticut,” Trifone said. “They are an extremely talented team and the last time we played them it was a tight game, either team could have won that game. I expect the same type of game this time around.”
Before losing to Newtown in the quarterfinal round of last season’s Class LL tournament, Darien won the state title in 2015, 2016 and 2017. So with Greenwich beating New Canaan for the Class LL championship in 2018, Wednesday’s matchup involves a pair of squads that have won the past four class titles.
This Class LL quarterfinal was originally scheduled to be held Tuesday, but was pushed back to Wednesday, due to inclement weather that’s blanketed the area.
The Blue Wave and Cardinals each learned plenty from their regular season encounter, which saw Darien post a 27-21 triumph. Darien jumped out to a 21-0 lead on Greenwich behind two touchdown receptions from senior Ryan Mulliken and a scoring run by senior Will Kirby.
The Cardinals responded with touchdown passes from junior James Rinello to receivers Kobe Comizio and AJ Barber and a touchdown run by Hunter Clark to tie the score at 21-21. Senior Jackson Peters caught a 19-yard scoring strike from senior quarterback Peter Graham, which gave the Blue Wave a 27-21 fourth quarter lead on Greenwich. Driving for the winning score in the final seconds, the game ended when Rinello spiked the ball on a 4th-and-1 play from Darien’s 13-yard line, due to confusion as to whether GHS gained a first down.
“The last time we played Darien, I believe we out-schemed ourselves a little bit,” Morello said. “We were coming off a bye and had two weeks to prepare for that game and sometimes you think about too many things. From that game, we learned not to take too many risks early in the game. It was also the first big game and pressure moment for a lot of our players. It took a quarter for them to learn the speed in which the game was played at.”
Both defenses will indeed, be tested, against formidable offensive units.
“We saw the number of weapons Greenwich has on offense, it’s mind-boggling, who they can throw the ball to and who they can hand the ball off to,” Trifone said. “Their quarterback is a duel threat, running and throwing. It presents problems every step of the way.”
Graham has passed for more than 2,300 yards with 24 touchdowns and only two interceptions on the season for the Blue Wave, who posted a 31-22 win over the Cards in the 2017 Class LL final.
“Peter has had an absolutely great year,” Trifone said. “This year, he sees the field very well, he understands his reads and how to check from 1 to 2 to 3. The offensive line has done a great job of protecting him, which has helped our offense.”
Greenwich has reeled off four consecutive victories since its loss to Darien, yielding just 29 points in the process. Junior linebackers Vincent Ceci (team-leading 114 tackles) and TJ Abbazia (89 tackles) and senior lineman Eddy Iuteri (team-high 7 sacks) have helped pace the Cards’ defense, which should be tested by Kirby (over 600 yards rushing, nine touchdowns) and Peters (team-high 30 receptions).
“Darien is sound, they run the ball well, they throw the ball well,” Morello said. “They take advantage of the opponent’s mistakes. If you jump offsides and are not aligned properly, they will exploit you. Also, they don’t make many mistakes offensively.”
Rinello has thrown for 2,001 yards in 10 games with 32 touchdowns and just three interceptions. His favorite targets to throw to are Comizio (37 receptions) and Barber (35 receptions, 14 touchdowns).
“We hope to somehow slow down their offense and put them into situations they aren’t used to,” Trifone said of Greenwich’s offense.
Morello has been pleased with what he’s seen from his squad since its loss to Darien.
“I was impressed with how the kids took the loss and how they were the next day in the locker room,” Morello said. “They were ready to move on before I was ready to move on. They wanted to play again, they wanted more and they wanted to see this team again. I told them, if you do your jobs you will get a chance down the road. The kids have been hoping for this opportunity.”