[aesop_character img=”http://www.gametimect.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Headshot.png” caption=”SEAN PATRICK BOWLEY” align=”right” force_circle=”off”]
Football, that ol’ microcosm of life, is full of its setbacks and disappointments. It’s part of Norwalk coach Sean Ireland’s daily lesson plan for the players in his program, which has seen its share of misfortune over the years.
The high school district is never short of spectacular athletes, yet not all of them stick around. They are either mined by other schools, or the students look elsewhere. Just before last season, Norwalk lost its quarterback to prep school and saw its all-state caliber receiver leave for to Trinity Catholic. They weren’t the first. They won’t be the last.
Norwalk’s football team does what it always does: restock and soldier on. The Bears still managed a solid, 5-4 record last season.
Yet, it was a year that will forever be tainted by The Game We Won, But Lost.
That, of course, was Norwalk’s 22-20 loss to Trinity Catholic in Week 2 of last season, a contentious, penalty-rife game which was decided on a controversial touchdown call with just over a minute left. (Norwalk contends Johnny Somers’ touchdown catch was incomplete because he was out of bounds, not because he supposedly dropped the ball). Fans chased referees from the game. Ireland, meanwhile, had been ejected for running onto the field to dispute the call. Per rules, he was suspended for the following week’s game vs. Ridgefield.
The Norwalk players say the misfortune gnawed at them so much, they couldn’t focus on the Ridgefield game and lost, 24-15. “We were just so caught up in that loss,” senior quarterback Krishtjan Frrokaj says now. “That was probably the worst week of practice we had all season. That loss spiraled us into a drought.”
Ireland still refuses to acknowledge that game as a loss — though, a year later, he does so with a laugh.
In the long run, he says, it might have been the best thing for his team.
“What we took from that is that life is not always fair,” Ireland said this week. “The question now becomes, how are you going to bounce back? Things aren’t going to be handed to you and when things go wrong, how do you respond?
“If we respond positively, then I’ve done my job teaching these kids how to be men.”
Norwalk did indeed turn the mirror on themselves. It was their fault, not the referees. They controlled their fate, no one else.
Following the Ridgefield loss, the Bears picked themselves up and won four of their next five games to finish the season with a winning record. Overall, three of their four losses were by a combined 14 points.
“That (Trinity) game taught us, we can’t bring it down to just one play,” said Frrokaj, who assumed the starting quarterback role as a junior when Greg Goldstein, the hero of 2014’s Thanksgiving victory over McMahon, transferred to prep school.
“A lot of our fans were trying to tell us that we should have won if the refs made the right call. But there’s four, 12-minute quarters. We should have put up another touchdowns so it would never have come to that.”
So far, the Bears, despite graduating almost all of their skill players and nine starters on defense, have taken the lesson to heart.
Behind Frrokaj and ferocious Temple-bound defensive lineman James Makszin, the Bears are 2-0 for the first time since their last state playoff season in 2011.
Now they head to Stamford to face their old pals from Trinity with a chance to make things right.
The roles are slightly different this time around. Trinity comes in 0-2, which is almost a death knell for the Crusaders’ hopes of retuning to the Class S state playoffs. Trinity is also christening their sparkling new turf field complex, Gaglio Field.
“Hell, yeah they’re going to be tough,” Frrokaj said. “One more loss and they’re probably out of states. And they have a really good team this year. I made a bet with someone before the season that Trinity andStaples will go far. I thought they would be coming in 2-0. But now? I bet they’re hungry.”
But Norwalk is hungry, too — hungry to make the same kind of run as the 2011 team. As inspiration, the Bears got a surprise visit this week from Delshawn Wilson, Norwalk’s All-State quarterback from that team and an embodiment of what’s possible.
“I told the kids on Saturday when we were watching film: These are the games you want to play,” Ireland said. “You don’t want to play the games you should win, you want to play the games against the teams that are comparable and maybe even a notch better than you. That’s where we think we are right now. Our kids very excited. They can’t wait for Saturday and that’s great.”
Above: Norwalk senior quarterback Krishtjan Frrokaj’s highlight reel from last week’s wild, 48-34 victory over Fairfield Warde. Frrokaj threw for 231 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 106 yards and another touchdown. He also kicked two field goals and six extra points.
To get there, Norwalk will ride Frrokaj, a second-year starter who threw for 1,412 yards and 14 touchdowns against just four interceptions last season. Frrokaj says the thought he played “pretty well” as a junior… that is, until he reviewed his film over the summer.
“I’m looking at it like, ‘This is garbage,'” he said, and vowed to make improvements. “I think I’m a little more composed and a little more comfortable in the pocket this year and making better throws this year. I feel more confident because it’s my senior year.”
Ireland has no complaints. Frrokaj is working with an new receiving corps but has helped them along by his veteran presence and knack for reading defenses. Frrokaj has accounted for 570 total yards, seven touchdowns, 11 extra points and two field goals in two weeks.
“He’s doing an unbelievable job,” the coach said. “We have a very young offense and to have a returning starting coming back makes it that much easier. I don’t have to explain every nook and cranny to him. I just say, here’s what we’re doing and he’s been phenomenal.”
Then there’s Makszin, a 6-foot-3, 282-pound behemoth on the two-way lineman who is affectionately known as ‘Thor,’ a nickname bestowed upon him by assistant coach Derrick Eason when Makszin joined the team sporting long, golden locks.
On a whim, Makszin cropped his hair for his senior season. But, unlike another mythical figure, it has not affected his play. Despite being the focus of offenses — who try everything to run away from him — Makszin has been dominant two weeks into the year.
He’s averaging 4 1/2 tackles per game, has five for a loss, a sack and three quarterback hurries.
“He’s got everything,” Ireland said of Makszin, whom he calls the best captain he’s ever had. “He’s strong, fast, aggressive. Offenses try to slant away from James, but he slants so fast and so violent, he’s making tackles behind the line of scrimmage because the play-side tackle can’t handle him.”
Ireland says Makszin is so dominant, referees often flag him for holding or excessive blocking. “It’s frustrating because — and I’m not knocking the referees, because he puts them in a tough spot — they think he’s committing penalties. To the naked eye, if you’re not following the whole play, it looks like a penalty. But he’s really that much better.”
Above: Junior highlight reel for Norwalk two-way lineman James Makszin, who has committed to Temple and is off to a torrid start his senior year.
“I just tell him, James, keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t change. He’s great. In between the lines he’s mean. Off the field, he’s the nicest kid in the world.”
Makszin committed to Temple on the first day of practice, not because he wanted to get his recruitment over with, but because he loved the university. “It just felt right,” Makszin said. “I like the way they play football, the way they coach, the atmosphere. They’re a team that just goes out and plays ball.”
Makzsin was also impressed by former St. Joseph linebacker Tyler Matakevich, who parlayed an outstanding four-year career at the school into a roster spot with the Pittsburgh Steelers. “Tyler, I followed him for a long time when he was at St. Joes,” Makszin said. “He’s definitely an inspiration to a lot of people especially coming out of Connecticut.”
Makszin says Norwalk’s strength is on the line, where he is flanked by, among others, two rocks in 6-4, 238-pound Russell Kwakye and 6-3, 375-pound senior Ja’Von Peoples. Despite being seniors, both are new to the team and will be key to holding off Trinity’s massive, 300-point front and stopping Jonmichael Bivona, a senior whom Ireland calls the best running back in the FCIAC.
Norwalk has also been led by captain Deondre Russell, who leads the Bears with 384 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns, and junior receivers A.J. Hall and Jalen Elliott. Junior Marlon Brown, a transfer from New York, has emerged as team’s leading rusher with 219 yards and a touchdown. Junior linebacker Marco Monteiro has plugged the gap left behind by All-FCIAC performer Eddie O’Hara.
“Trinity is a very good team,” Ireland said. “We know they like to run the ball, that’s no secret, and they pose a lot of problems for us. Defensively they fly, they get after the ball. So if we win this game, we’ll be feeling all right.”
It’s safe to say Drew Pyne has proven himself in New Canaan after the freshman’s dazzling first start in the Rams’ 41-21 victory over Ridgefield. He completed 20 of 35 passes for 281 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ran for 57 yards.
“I was totally impressed by him. He made some big throws and hung in there,” New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli told Scott Ericson of The Advocate of Stamford. “He also did some things that almost gave me a heart attack but he is pretty cool under pressure. He made some big-time throws, I thought.”
Ridgefield quarterback Drew Fowler went down with a shoulder injury in the second quarter and never returned. At the time he left the game, Ridgefield trailed New Canaan 14-10. They tacked on a field goal at the end of the half to pull within 14-13. But New Canaan rattled off four-consecutive touchdowns. Overall, the Rams offense — which was maligned in its 20-6 victory over Trinity — showed up in a big way with 549 yards of total offense.
“It hurt (to lose Fowler), but he doesn’t play defense so there’s no explanation for the other side,” Ridgefield coach Kevin Callahan told the Advocate.
As good as Pyne was in his starting debut, the star of the show was — once again — New Canaan senior Ryan O’Connell, who turned in an all-state caliber performance: 251 yards of total offense.
Ridgefield now circles the wagons as it awaits the return of Fowler, who’s expected to miss several weeks. The Tigers (1-1) face Ludlowe (0-2) this week followed by Norwalk (2-0), Trinity Catholic (0-2) and then Staples (2-0). They have a bye after the Norwalk game, which will help lessen the blow of Fowler’s absence.
…In another offensive turnaround, Greenwich shook off its Week 1 malaise by dominating Trinity Catholic early in its eventual 41-20 victory. The Cardinals bolted to a 21-0 halftime lead while stacking its defensive front seven to stop the Crusaders’ rushing attack.
It worked out pretty well. Workhorse Jonmichael Bivona managed just four yards on 12 carries. Nick Melia ran for over 100 yards and a touchdown in the third quarter for Trinity.
Greenwich quarterback Connor Langan completed nine passes for 171 yards and four touchdowns to four different players — three in the first half. Cole Hartley added 107 yards on 15 carries.
The Cardinals are now 2-0 with a narrow win over Westhill and a dominant win over Trinity. They’ll see if they can put it all together against Darien Saturday afternoon.
…The No. 1 Blue Wave had no issues in racing past Stamford 51-14. New quarterback Brian Peters threw three touchdowns, upping his total to six, and new tailback Michell Pryor ran for two more.
…As expected, Danbury played Staples tough in the first half of its Friday night game on Clapboard Ridge. The Hatters took a 7-0 lead in the second quarter and were only down 14-7 at halftime.
But Harrison Levi showed that the Wreckers have more than one tailback at their disposal when Elliott Poulley left the game, reportedly with an ankle injury. Levi rolled up 225 yards on 24 carries and scored three touchdowns — two in a 22-point third quarter — as the Wreckers remained unbeaten with a 36-7 victory.
…Wilton defeated McMahon, 28-7, and moved to 2-0 for the first time since 2011, the last year the Warriors finished with a winning record. Junior A.J. Pykosz recovered two fumbles and ran one of them back for a touchdown on the first play of the game.
For those keeping score, that’s three total fumble recoveries this season for Pykosz, who has led a strong effort by the Wilton defense so far. The Warriors have allowed just 21 points, which is only second behind Staples (20) for the least allowed in the FCIAC.
Oh, by the way, the Warriors travel to Westport to face the Wreckers on Friday night.
…Lost in Norwalk’s victory over Fairfield Warde was a a number of outstanding performances from the Mustangs’ side of things.
The game was Warde’s first without senior running back Bryan Azarian, who broke his leg in the team’s overtime loss to Wilton in Week 1. Needing someone to step up, junior Jack Curtis answered the call with an 80-yard touchdown run to open up a 7-0 lead. According to statistics posted by the team, he finished with 140 yards on just six carries.
Sophomore quarterback David Summers, meanwhile, had a solid second game as the starter. He completed 14 of 24 passes for 191 yards and three touchdowns. the Mustangs were still able to roll up 361 yards of total offense. Mike Whiting caught five passes for 71 yards and a touchdown.
…Westhill wasted no time putting last week’s upsetting loss to Greenwich behind with a 45-16 victory over Central. Quarterback Blake Newcomer completed 14 of 27 for 245 yards and three touchdowns. Neldylens Metayer — affectionately known as “Noodles” — scored two touchdowns in the first half, one on a fumble recovery return. The Vikings play host to Trumbull this week.
…Trumbull also put a disappointing Week 1 behind it with a 42-13 victory over Ludlowe. Johnny McElroy threw for three touchdown passes as the Eagles bolted to 42-0 lead.
…St. Joseph earned its first victory of the season, albeit out-of-conference against rebuilding and former Class M rival Ledyard, 50-12. Junior Jared Mallozzi, who had a good opening game despite last week’s loss to Darien, had a breakout performance with nine catches for 136 yards and four touchdowns. Quarterback Cory Babineau completed 17 of 22 passes for 291 yards and six touchdowns. The other two went to Philip Pasmeg, who had a not-too-shabby four catches for 107 yards.
…The victory was St. Joseph’s third-consecutive win over Ledyard since the wild, 2013 Class M semifinal game. St. Joseph also defeated Ledyard in the Class M-Small final in 2014. The matchup was canceled last season when the FCIAC truncated its schedule to accommodate its title game. Though St. Joseph and Ledyard agreed to rekindle the matchup, the victory will actually cost St. Joseph 10 playoff points because the Colonels dropped to Class S this year. St. Joseph remains in Class M, meaning it will receive 90, not 100, base playoff points for the win.
…Danbury, which fell to 0-2 after its loss to Staples, plays former FCIAC foe Harding at Kennedy Stadium this week. Harding, which moved to and won the Constitution State Conference last season, is 2-0 following victories over Prince Tech and Bassick. Danbury, meanwhile has lost to Stamford and Staples.
Player of the Week
Ryan O’Connell, New Canaan
With apologies to Staples, the senior continues to be a wrecking crew for No. 2-ranked New Canaan. The senior amassed 267 yards of total offense for the Rams in their statement 41-21 victory over Ridgefield. He ran 18 times for 158 yards, caught four passes for 124 yards and a touchdown, and had five tackles on defense, all of which made life easy for freshman staring quarterback Drew Pyne.
Game of the Week
Greenwich at Darien, Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
Greenwich, still trying to find its identity after escaping an upset bid by Westhill in Week 1, took a nice step in that direction with its 41-20 home victory over Trinity Catholic. Connor Langan and the passing game looked better, the defense put in another strong performance. The Cards 2-0 for the first time since 2012 and for the first time under John Marinelli.
Now they head to Darien to see what they can do against the No. 1 team in the state. And just how real is Darien, anyway? Here’s where we begin to out. The Blue Wave take a 14-game win streak into the game.
Inside the Numbers
Consecutive games Darien has won vs. Greenwich since the 2008 season, including three-straight from 2013-2015. Darien’s last loss was 28-7 in Week 2 of the 2007 season, coach Rob Trifone’s first as the Blue Wave coach and Greenwich’s last state championship season. Overall, Rob Trifone is 4-1 vs the Cardinals as Darien coach.
The Top 5
- 1. DARIEN (2-0, LW 1) — Greenwich on Saturday is the Blue Wave’s first true hurdle of 2016. Will it be a high hurdle?
- 2. NEW CANAAN (2-0, LW 2) — Consider this spot cemented.
- 3. STAPLES (2-0, LW 4) — The Wreckers have been anything but dominant so far, but they do seem to wear out opponents by the second half.
- 4. RIDGEFIELD (1-1, LW 3) — Losing Fowler for a few weeks will show us what Ridgefield really is made of.
- 5. TRUMBULL (1-1, LW 5) — The Eagles took care of business in rolling past Ludlowe as they begin their post-Ridgefield reclamation project.
JUST MISSED — Greenwich (2-0), Norwalk (2-0), Westhill (1-1), Trinity Catholic (0-2), Wilton (2-0)
Ffld.Ludlowe at Ridgefield, 7:00 p.m.
New Canaan at Bridg.Central, 7:00 p.m.
Ffld.Warde at Stamford, 6:00 p.m.
Wilton at Staples, 7:00 p.m.
Norwalk at Trinity Cath., 1:00 p.m.
Trumbull at Westhill, 1:30 p.m.
McMahon at St. Joseph, 1:30 p.m.
Greenwich at Darien, 1:30 p.m.
Danbury at Harding, 1:00 p.m.