NEW CANAAN — Drew Guida and Matt Rigione have had many similar experiences with the New Canaan football program.
They’re both senior captains on a Rams’ team which is playing in the state playoffs for the 15th consecutive year.
They’re both key parts of a defense which has stepped up late in the season, allowing just one touchdown in consecutive wins over Darien and Wethersfield during the past two weeks.
And they’ve both experienced what it’s like to be on the sidelines while their teammates were battling in big games.
Rigione, a lineman, missed the entire postseason last year after suffering an ACL injury in the Turkey Bowl, while Guida, a safety and wide receiver, broke his collarbone this preseason and was out for the Rams’ first six games.
Guida and Rigione have been keys to a revived New Canaan defense as the fourth-seeded Rams (9-2) get set to take on No. 1 St. Joseph (11-0) in the CIAC Class L semifinals at Bunnell High School in Stratford at 6:30 p.m., Monday.
It’s the second meeting of the season between the two FCIAC teams — the Hogs crushed the Rams 58-14 at Dunning Field in Week four — but New Canaan is now in a different place.
“It’s us against the world,” Guida said. “Nobody expects us to win and we’ve embraced that. We’ve been looked down at as a class, especially coming after the class above us, and we love what we’re doing. We’ve had a chip on our shoulders since we were 2-2.”
Guida missed that game against St. Joseph, as well as a Week two loss in Ridgefield, but the Rams own a seven-game win streak and are coming off their two best performances of the season: A 20-0 shutout of Darien in the Turkey Bowl, and a 42-7 rout of Wethersfield in the state quarterfinals on Tuesday.
Being under the lights at Dunning Field for a state game seemed like a pipe dream following the Rams’ lopsided loss to St. Joe’s.
“It was unbelievable,” Rigione said of the win over Wethersfield, which included a key goal-line stop by the defense in the first quarter. “We went from almost not having a playoff game to playing at home for the last time and absolutely having a blowout game. It was a total success and a great feeling.”
It was also a victory which hit home for Rigione, as he was on the sidelines for the Rams’ three state tournament games last season, including a loss to Greenwich in the Class LL final.
“You want to be out there for your brothers,” Rigione said. “You want to be working hard and fighting, and when you’re there on the sidelines, you can’t do anything about (it). When you win, it’s still a good feeling because it’s your team, but when you lose, it hurts like hell.”
The feeling was the same for Guida, who was primed to be a big part of the defensive secondary before his preseason injury.
“Sitting out, especially against St. Joe’s and the two losses we had, was not a good time,” Guida said. “It was especially hard in the practices after those games when you can’t physically do anything to help the team. There’s always teaching and coaching kids up, but it’s brutal not being able to play.”
New Canaan’s secondary in particular was hit hard early in the schedule, as Guida’s injury was followed by the loss of junior safety Chris Canet for the season. That left the pass defense in a bit of disarray as the Rams were lit up by the Hogs and quarterback Jack Wallace.
“At the beginning of the year, we were fighting each other for a job rather than playing as a unit, and the biggest change has been that we’re now playing as a unit,” Guida said. ‘We’re rooting for each other and having fun out there.”
The result has been six interceptions in the past two games, including two by Guida, as well as a pick six for Walker Swindell in the state quarterfinals. Guida and Swindell have been solid at the safety positions with senior co-captain Zach LaPolice and senior Dean Ciancio at the corners.
“We’re embracing what we’re doing,” Guida said. “The offense takes the headlines, but the defense is playing with pride.”
The line play was especially effective against Darien. Senior linebacker Jack Finnigan hit Wave QB Peter Graham on the first play from scrimmage to set the tone.
Rigione was teamed with juniors Ethan Chalon and Alex Tchir, with senior Chris Carratu and junior Braden Sweeney on the ends.
“On the line, it was definitely a fight,” Rigione said. “Darien has one of the best trained offensive lines out there. Defensively, it was all about playing hard, playing our gaps, and playing the way Coach (Chris) Silvestri has taught us to play. That’s the way we dominated that game.”
New Canaan has shown a great ability to adapt and grow, with a defensive crew led by coordinator Chris Silvestri.
“He’s a lot of fun to work with,” Rigione said. “He’s energetic, insanely intense and he’ll get on your butt if you do something wrong, but he’ll celebrate you with everything you do right. It’s an absolute pleasure to have him as a coach and he’s one of the smartest football guys I’ve ever met.”
“Coach is so fun to play for,” Guida said. “He always lets us play and fly around. He tells us ‘just play’ and don’t let anything get caught in your head. When he gives you a compliment it’s the best thing in the world because he doesn’t give out too many. It always feels good to make him happy.”
No matter what happens in Monday’s game, the Rams have managed to take a season which was nearly lost and turn it into another memorable one.
They’ll also have an eye on shocking those who are giving them no chance.
“It’s an underdog mentality,” Rigione said. “When the odds are against us and our backs are against the wall, that’s when things swing in our favor. What you’ll see in the St. Joe’s game is we’ll come out on top and everyone will be surprised.”