Four years ago, the players, coaches and administrators of Southern Connecticut Conference could hold their heads up high, puff out their chests and boast.
Xavier won its third-straight Class LL title. Hand, which had beaten Xavier in an all-time classic, claimed its second-straight Class L title. Hillhouse had won Class M, its second title in three years.
The FCIAC, long considered the SCC’s chief rival, was nowhere to be found.
St. Joseph and Trinity Catholic had bowed out in the quarterfinals, Staples and New Canaan went down in the semifinals.
Since then? It’s been all FCIAC.
From 2013 until right now, on the eve of the 2016 state championships, the league has had six finalists (twice against each other) and has won six titles — more than any other league (the CCC is second with four).
FCIAC teams represent four of this year’s finalists, half of the entire championship field.
With Darien and Ridgefield facing off in Class LL, the league is guaranteed at least one title on Saturday.
New Canaan will look to win its fourth-straight title when it plays Windsor in the Class L final. St. Joseph looks to win its third title in four years when it faces Hillhouse in the Class M final.
Darien has won 25 consecutive games and has a shot at winning back-to-back No. 1 rankings with a victory over Ridgefield.
This is the first time since 2005 that a league has had four finalists, but the first time it’s happened with with only four championship games played.
The FCIAC can be the first league to win three titles since the SCC in that 2012 season.
“I think it means a lot that the FCIAC has been able to make it this far in the tournament,” Darien senior back and linebacker Finlay Collins said. “I think it shows a lot how this league has improved and how competitive it is.”
FCIAC teams are 8-1 this postseason — including three victories over the SCC. Its only loss was because Greenwich played Darien in the first round. Out of conference, the FCIAC is 8-0 in the playoffs.
The players and coaches don’t just notice their success, they revel in it.
“Yea, I mean I heard FCIAC’s 8-1 in playoffs so far, right?” said Ridgefield quarterback Drew Fowler, whose team toppled Shelton and West Haven, arguably the best two SCC teams, to reach its first state final since 2002. “That speaks volumes to how strong the FCIAC is despite what people are saying about the SCC or whatever.
“SCC definitely a great league too but I think the FCIAC’s just a notch above right now. Its coaches and players are just locking in.”
Beginning in 2013 the FCIAC has gone 29-7 in the playoffs, all told. Four of those seven losses were against other FCIAC schools. Against non-league teams, the FCIAC is 25-3.
“I absolutely love it,” Ridgefield receiver Chris Longo said. “No offense to you and the other people, everybody’s always talking about the SCC and how they’re the best conference in the state and — what are we? — 8-1? in the FCIAC right now … so it’s a testiment to how competitive our league is and how good our teams are and how tough it is to win.”
The reason? It’s hard to quantify. But a good part of it might be the enormous success Darien and New Canaan have had, creating a standard for the rest of the league to follow.
The Blue Wave and Rams have each played in four-consecutive state finals since 2013. New Canaan has won three-straight state titles and is playing for its fourth on Saturday.
“Every year I go into a season and say, how could this senior class ever do what the last senior class has done?” New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli said. “And yet, here we are once again here. I’m proud of this group. We have guys who had never played a down of varsity football have stepped up and done a tremendous job. People come up up through the ranks. It’s really gratifying.”
Darien is the reigning Class LL champion and state’s No. 1. The only reason why Darien doesn’t have more titles is because New Canaan denied them the Class L trohpy in 2013 and 2014.
“Honestly, it’s our coaching,” Collins said of Darien’s success. “… The football coaching staff this year has done an incredible job. I honestly bleieve we wouldn’t be anywhere without them. They prepare us extremely well and each and every week we’re ready to go. We know exactly what each team is going to do.”
And then there’s St. Joseph, which has managed to navigate the larger schools on its schedule to qualify for Class M, which it has won twice over the last three seasons and is looking for a third title in four years.
Meanwhile, no one in the FCIAC has beaten either Darien or New Canaan in three seasons.
St. Joseph is the last non-New Canaan FCIAC team to beat Darien, which it did in 2012. Trinity Catholic is the last non-Darien FCIAC team to beat New Canaan, which it did in 2012.
To get anywhere in the FCIAC, the rest of the league’s teams have had to elevate themselves to Darien and New Canaan’s level.
“That has something to do with it, absolutely,” Longo said. “(New Canaan and Darien) are both tough teams that everybody looks to beat every year. And, every year, our motivation is: How are we going to beat New Canaan? How are we going to beat Darien?
“It’s always nice to be looking up to something. They’ve kind of set the standard for the FCIAC. Every year, in and out they’re the most successful.”
Darien and New Canaan are glad their fellow opponents have joined the fray… even if Darien has to go through Ridgefield in the final.
“It’s great to play at a high level and have so many teams that are competitive and every week have a team that you have to prepare for every week,” said Darien offensive lineman Andrew Stueber. “It’s something that has grown in Connecticut football and it’s getting better and better.
“It’s even getting recognized nationally at the next level and it’s a great thing to be a part of.”
Indeed, many FCIAC players have gone on to play for high-profile college teams. Stueber is committed to Michigan. New Canaan’s Zach Allen is at Boston College, Lucas Niang at TCU, Alex LaPolice at Harvard and Michael Collins at Pennsylvania. St. Joseph’s Lars Pedersen and Cam Ryan at Cornell and, of course, St. Joseph’s 2011 graduate Tyler Matakevich, who won the Bednarik and Nagurski awards at Temple as the nation’s top defensive player in 2015.