SOUTHINGTON >> Before coach Lou Marinelli could make any speeches, before he could congratulate his powerful football team on reaching the Class L state championship game, a hush fell over the New Canaan players as the coach’s son and assistant John Marinelli brought over his phone and started to give updates.
The players began to chant, “Blue Wave! Blue Wave! Blue Wave!” praying that their support would help Darien hang on to defeat Middletown in the other semifinal being played 45 minutes away in Southbury.
When John Marinelli announced the final score, the players burst into cheers.
It might have been one of the only times New Canaan had ever cheered for its bitter border rivals.
“We were all about them,” senior receiver Jack Gilio said. “We were ecstatic. We were louder than we were on the bus ride back. It was ridiculous. We were so pumped.”
Now, they could start celebrating.
It was payback time.
New Canaan’s perfect season and possibly a great shot to earn the No. 1 ranking in the GameTimeCT/Register’s Top 10 poll was ruined on with a 28-24 loss to the hated Blue Wave in the Turkey Bowl on Thanksgiving Day. The Rams get a shot at redemption in the Class L state championship game Saturday at 11 a.m. at Boyle Stadium in Stamford.
The Blue Wave players sympathize. They, too, were hoping for a rematch.
“To be honest, if we’d wrapped up our game first and they were still playing, we’d be rooting for them to win also,” linebacker Myles Ridder said. “Playing New Canaan is a once in a lifetime… well, twice in a lifetime opportunity, now. Playing them for a state championship, it’s the biggest game of our lives.”
And, for a cherry on top of this deftly-iced cake, the Rams will get to play Darien for the title in their back yard. The threat of snowstorms, not to mention intense lobbying from both sides, convinced the CIAC reschedule the game at the stadium next door.
It was there, in 2008, that the two teams played perhaps the most ballyhooed game of their storied, 85-game series. Ten thousand fans packed the rustic stands and watched New Canaan defeat Darien 28-20 to win that year’s FCIAC title.
A week later in Trumbull, New Canaan defeated Darien 26-7 to win the Class MM title, their seventh of eight championships under Lou Marinelli.
Saturday’s game is the second time the rivals have faced for the state title. New Canaan leads the all-time series 48-35-2, but it has lost the last two meetings.
Naturally, winning a ninth title by avenging those losses would mean everything to the Rams.
“I think there is a motivating factor for our kids because they beat us on Thanksgiving, but they’re just as excited to play us,” said Lou Marinelli, now in his 33rd year as the Rams’ coach. “But whenever we get together — it could be on Thanksgiving, it could be on Christmas, it could be on New Years, it could be at Stamford, it could be at Central Connecticut or we could play at Gillette (Stadium) — it would be an exciting game and it’s going to draw a crowd.
“That rivalry brings out the best that high school football has to offer.”
And, sometimes, the worst. In 2010, Darien players vandalized New Canaan’s home field the night before the Turkey Bowl and were suspended. Last year, Darien fans vandalized New Canaan’s equipment.
But this year’s players, for the most part, seem to have nothing but respect for their opponents.
“We know them well, our staffs know each other well,” Lou Marinelli said. “We brought out the best in Darien on Thanksgiving. And if they play like that again, we have a chance to lose to them again. We have to be prepared.”
The Blue Wave graduated stars QB Henry Baldwin and RB Peter Gesualdi from a year ago, yet they’ve rebuilt behind Lombardo, senior quarterback Silas Wyper, receiver Griffin Ross and outstanding underclass talents like sophomore end Mark Evanchick and junior George Reed.
“The only people who believed that we could get here were the people in our family,” Lombardo said. “We’ve flown under the radar. We like that role.”
Despite winning on Thanksgiving, earning the Class L No. 1 seed and taking a nine-game win streak heading into the final, Darien (12-1) still feels like it’s going up against the state’s best team.
“Clearly, we’re still the underdog,” said Lombardo, an all-New England track star. “A lot of people still think they’re the best team in the state. We believe that, too. We’re going to have to come out firing on all cylinders to beat them.”
Led by quarterback Nick Cascione and a host of offensive threats, New Canaan (13-1) has outscored its opponents by an average score of 44-14. Its defense, manned by all-state linebacker Cole Harris and other college-bound stars like lineman Connor Buck (Colgate), Mike Root and junior Zach Allen, have yet to allow a point in the state playoffs.
“After allowing 28 points to Darien, the defense got together and said we’ve got to get our swagger back,” Buck said. “And that’s what we did.”
With its myriad of weekly uniform and helmet changes and a flashy, up-tempo spread offense, the Rams have been as much about swagger as they have football. They’ve become ’Showtime’ in Connecticut football.
The players say it’s all about their love of the game.
On a snow day earlier this week and practice canceled for the day, the New Canaan players went down to Dunning field on their own.
“We were throwing the ball around and we kind of caught ourselves,” Gilio said. “On our one day off, we continued to play football. We don’t just do it because coaches tell us and assign practices, we do it because we love the sport.”
And there’s nothing like playing it against your biggest rival on the greatest stage, right down the street from the two high schools.
“Everyone in town is hyped,” Buck said. “You can’t walk around without adults coming up to you and saying, ‘What’s the game going to be like?’ It’s awesome.”
“We knew we’d have to play them twice, and here we are,” Ridder said. “Everyone in town is going to this game. To win the state championship would mean the world to us and Darien.”