Darien’s Will Rolapp and Greenwich’s Mozi Bici are less than a year removed from successful football seasons at their high schools, so who could blame them if this weekend’s Grip It and Rip It 7-on-7 football tournament in New Canaan felt a little strange.
Rolapp, a wide receiver and former Blue Wave star, and Bici, a defensive end and former Cardinal standout, were both playing with Suffield Academy for the first time and, on the other side of the field, were their former teammates.
In the end, it was all good.
“It was great to see those boys,” Rolapp said. “Those were my teammates last year and I love those kids, so it was good to see them and compete against them.”
“It was awesome to see them,” Bici said. “It was funny seeing them across the field and playing against one of my best friend’s little brother. It was a lot of fun and a great experience. I don’t think I’ll forget it.
“I think someone yelled ‘traitor’ from the sideline,” Bici added with a smile.
Both players are doing post graduate years at Suffield Academy and will be looking at their college options for the 2020-21 year. Rolapp will also play basketball for the Tigers.
This weekend had some added intrigue for the Tigers, who had just nine players, many of whom were together for the first time. They still managed to go 6-2 overall, beating both Darien and Greenwich along the way, and finished one win short of the championship game.
“They played with a lot of heart, which wins you a lot of football games in the end,” head coach Drew Gamere said. “It’s a win in my book. We didn’t win the tournament, which we would’ve liked to do, but we certainly were successful. It says a lot about what type of team we’ll have going forward.”
“I just met these guys yesterday,” Rolapp said. “We put together a team and it was good to get to know the guys and play with them for the first time this weekend. We had nine guys, it’s hot out and a lot of the teams we were playing had full benches. We were dragging three games ago, so to make it as far as we did, especially just meeting these guys, is pretty impressive.”
“It’s a great team with a great coach — coach Gramere is an awesome dude, so I’m so happy to be playing for him and to be a part of this team,” Bici said. “There’s a bunch of great athletes here and everybody knows how to play. It was great coming in for the first time and I really felt welcomed right away.”
Bici played at linebacker and saw some time on offense, even catching a touchdown pass.
“That was really fun and it was tiring,” he said. “It’s definitely a different game. It was really fun getting to catch the ball. I don’t get to do it that much playing defense and being on the line.”
Gamere was seeing Rolapp and Bici in action for the first time and was impressed with the two local players.
“Today was the first day I got to work with them live,” Gamere said. “I knew both guys were talented and they did a great job at their high schools, but you never really know till you get to work with guys. We’re excited to have them at Suffield.”
All the talk at these tournaments is about the passing game, getting the routes down, getting the offensive chemistry set.
And the decisive play was made by a defensive back.
Bloomfield junior Denzel Patrick knocked away a two-point conversion pass with no time left that would have given Iona Prep the championship. His pass-defensed gave the Warhawks an 18-17 victory.
“I noticed that two of their inside receivers went out, and every single time they scored, it was in that inside pocket,” Patrick said.
“So the quarterback would look this way and throw it that way. So I read it. I was backpedaling, looked at his eyes, looked at the receiver’s hips and followed him. And as he threw it, I got in front of it.”
That capped an undefeated weekend for Bloomfield, last year’s CIAC Class S champion. The Warhawks went 4-0 Friday and 6-0 Saturday.
They battled all weekend, too. Senior receiver Anthony Simpson pointed out a play that Michael Raiford made in the back of the end zone to force fourth down for Iona Prep, getting the ball back (and, under the seven-on-seven rules, two points).
“We’re a small team. We’re looking to get better. We know there’s going to be better competition over here than where we come from, than our hometown,” Simpson said. “We played better as a team and as a unit.”
It’s a young group; there were a few freshmen at New Canaan this weekend. But they have some key players returning, like quarterback Daron Bryden, a junior.
“We’ve got to stay together as a team, just make sure we stay healthy all throughout the year,” said Bryden, who said he liked the way the offense clicked all weekend.
NEED A LITTLE GIVE AND TAKE
Connecticut won the day, but the last six teams standing included a whole lot of New York.
Iona Prep reached the winners bracket final, beat Suffield Academy to get back to the championship game and nearly stole the thing from Bloomfield at the end.
The Gaels graduated their starting quarterback and their top five receivers, so there’s enough to work on. But junior quarterback Darius Wilson has seen good things this summer.
“We’re definitely getting better. We’re not where we want to be yet, but we’ll get there by the season,” Wilson said.
“We did (seven-on-seven tournaments) at Fordham and Rutgers. We made it to the finals at Fordham as well. We’ve just been getting better each time.”
Archbishop Stepinac of White Plains, N.Y., won five in a row, the last over Cardinal Hayes of the Bronx (which had defeated Suffield Academy earlier in the day), to reach the losers bracket semifinal, where it fell to Suffield Academy. Shenendehowa of Clifton Park, N.Y., was Bloomfield’s victim in the winners bracket semis.
AIMING FOR A RETURN TO THE TOP
Darien enters the 2019 football season in an unfamiliar place. For the first time in three years, the Blue Wave is not defending a state championship.
Senior Peter Graham, Darien’s starting quarterback, knows where the road back to the top beings.
“The weight room, 7-on-7s, and right here at Grip It and Rip It, that’s where it starts,” Graham said during this weekend’s tournament in New Canaan. “It’s great for team bonding and chemistry to get ready for the season.”
Darien, which finished 9-2 but lost its final two games last fall, has looked good this summer. The Wave won the Shoreline Tournament at Daniel Hand in Madison two weeks ago, and went 4-3 while missing a few players this weekend in New Canaan.
All of the 7-on-7 work is designed to get the skill position players ready for what lies ahead.
“Offensively, it’s all about timing between the quarterback and the receivers, pattern discipline and athletes continuing to learn their pass patterns,” Darien head coach Rob Trifone said. “Defensively, we get a lot out of it. You’re constantly reading your offensive players, reads that we’ve taught them all year long, and it gives them good practice in the secondary.”
Graham pointed to a long list of receivers who have looked strong for Darien this summer.
“Michael Minicus, Austin Dehmel, Ryan Mulliken, Connor O’Malley, Sean Gifford — they’ve all been playing tremendously,” Graham said. “And we don’t have Jackson Peters with us, but he’ll be back shortly and work his way into the rotation, too.”
As for taking over as the Wave’s starting QB for his senior season, Graham is ready to live the dream.
“This is awesome,” he said. “It’s been my dream since I was little: To be able to play football for Darien High School. It’s finally here and I’m trying to make the most of it.”