GREENWICH — The pass was complete, the ball was spotted at the Darien 13-yard line and the frantic seconds were ticking. Junior quarterback James Rinello, Gavin Muir’s backup during Greenwich’s unbeaten and overpowering 2018 season, steadied his offensive teammates.
Darien was up, 27-21 in this compelling October FCIAC showdown and the blocked extra-point after the Blue Wave’s fourth-quarter touchdown suddenly was in play. Cardinal Stadium was packed with students and fans from both towns. Yes, it was loud and it was lit. Greenwich has a beautiful videoboard and the digital seconds on it continued to tick. Nine, eight, seven …
How many years have you been coaching, Rob Trifone was asked after a late Saturday afternoon start had given way to dramatic finish under the cover of darkness.
“Forty-one,” the Darien coach said.
Ever have a game end like that?
“No,” Trifone said. “I have lost on the last play of the game. I have won on the last play of the game. Not quite the finish like that.”
Six, five … Rinello, who was 23-for-32 for 290 yards and two touchdowns, spiked the ball with four seconds left.
“Right after they snapped the ball, I saw our sidelines going crazy,” Sam Wilson, Darien’s outstanding senior linebacker said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I actually didn’t know.”
Neither did Rinello.
He spiked the ball on fourth and one.
“We used our last timeout on third down,” first-year Greenwich coach Anthony Morello said. “We told the kids, ‘We get the first down, we want to kill the clock, make sure you get up there to spike. (Rinello) thought we had a first down. We’re screaming on the sidelines to try to run another play. I’m halfway on the field. Unfortunately, they didn’t hear me with all the crowd noise.
“When I was talking to my guys after the game, I made it clear to them that the loss is on me. If I don’t have them prepared to run a fourth-and-one play, who’s fault is it? I take full responsibility for that loss. It’s not going to be on the kids. It’s an unfortunate way to end it, but a game isn’t won and lost on a single play.”
There was so much to digest in this terrific game between the No. 3 and No. 4 teams in both state polls that when we finish chewing on all of it, the only conclusion I can draw is, man, this is going to be one hell of a rematch to decide the 2019 Class LL state champion. Are we jumping to conclusions at the expense of Newtown and a few others? Maybe. But on a day when the rambunctious Darien student section started chanting, “Over-rated!” at Greenwich after the first defensive stop of the game, permit us a few premature projections.
That’s part of the fun, isn’t it?
GameTimeCT has a staff “Pick ‘Ems” each week and we would be remiss if we didn’t point out that 11 of our 12 experts picked Greenwich over Darien in the fight of unbeatens. Thank God for Dave Stewart.
“I honestly thought Darien’s defense could do a number on Greenwich,” Stewart said. “When I saw I was the only one who picked Darien, my thought was it was going to look ridiculous that the guy who covers Darien was the only one who picked them.”
There’s only one word to describe Stewart today. Genius.
Did Trifone see the near unanimous pick against Darien?
“See it?” he said. “I put it on the screen (for all the team to see). And I want to thank them … Of course, I put it up on the screen. Absolutely … By the way, I couldn’t have picked the winner. Had Greenwich won would I have been surprised? No. Disappointed but not surprised.”
“I was going to go into that,” Wilson said. “I wouldn’t have been surprised with eight of 12, but 11 of 12 surprised me. I know you guys are the experts. It’s nice to be under the radar. It’s motivation.”
The defeat ended Greenwich’s 18-game winning streak. The last time the Cardinals lost? Dec. 9, 2017 in the Class LL championship to Darien. The Cardinals outscored their opponents, 579-54, in running the table last year. They weren’t ranked No. 1 in the state at the start of the season but they most certainly were at the end. After finishing the No. 1 team in the state three years in a row, Darien lost in the state LL quarterfinals to Newtown.
“We go 9-2 and you thought it was a funeral march at the banquet,” Trifone said. “When you raise the bar high and you win three state championships, 9-2 obviously isn’t what the players want. These players dedicated themselves after that Newtown loss.”
Fifteen minutes in, Darien was ahead, 21-0, it looked as if this might be a 40-point rout. Peter Graham found Ryan Mulliken for a 10-yard TD pass. A Jackson Peters interception led to a 21-yard Graham TD pass to Mulliken. Graham found Michael Minicus for a 41-yard pass that set up a 3-yard Will Kirby run. David Evanchick had a fourth-down sack. He and Will Bothwell were all over Rinello most of the game. Wilson made terrific plays on defense, too.
“It was a scary first quarter, but we never gave up and it turned into a great football game,” Morello said. “Our kids showed a ton of heart. They fought all the way back. We came out a little flat-footed. The bye week can be attributed to that a bit … Unfortunately, we couldn’t run the ball like we wanted to and Darien did some nice things defensively.”
Blown coverage allowed Rinello to hit a wide-open Kobe Comizio for a 64-yard touchdown with 58 seconds left in the first half. Minicus fumbled the opening kickoff of the second half and that quickly turned into another touchdown. Before Darien knew it, the game was tied on 24-yard TD pass to AJ Barber, who was never allowed single coverage.
“Cramps hurt a lot,” Trifone said. “There was a point when we had one varsity player in the secondary and three jayvee players. That was the score to tie it. What do you do?”
Spikes, cramps, Darien would have the final answer: A 19-yard TD pass from Graham to Peters with under eight minutes left.
Darien, No. 4, figures to be No. 3 this week. Greenwich, No. 3, figures to be No. 4. Daniel Hand will remain No. 1. St. Joe’s, which crushed No. 7 Ridgefield, will remain No. 2.
But, really, how can we say who the best team is right now? The great advantage is to the team that’s named No. 1 at the start of the season and never lose. An initial qualitative judgment is supported by quantitative results and voila!
“Hand has an amazing team with Phoenix Billings, Ben Corniello, a lot of great athletes,” said Sean Patrick Bowley, our GameTime CT guru. “Except for a few guys, they basically have the same team that won the last two Class L championships. Greenwich lost nearly everybody. Darien unproven, good team that had lost in the quarterfinals.
“Hand had a case for No. 1 last year, it wasn’t a a good case with an SCC Tier II schedule. Now they’re playing an SCC Tier I schedule, although there are some people who still don’t think it’s enough.”
Trifone said his coaches were watching tape of Greenwich against teams you know the Cardinals are so much better than, and there they were trying to get a barometer on just how good the Cardinals are.
“I’m sure they were the same with us,” Trifone said. “Quite honestly, how good are we until we play a team like this?”
Me? I can’t wait. What if St. Joe’s, at No. 2, knocks off Hand for the Class L title? And Darien and Greenwich play another thriller like this in the Class LL? What then?
“We’ll just take it week by week and if we do our job and win out from here, we’ll be in the playoffs and hopefully we’ll see (Darien) again,” Morello said. “This will be fuel for us the rest of the season. Nobody is going to remember what you did in September or October. They remember what you did in December.”