The season did not start the way either Shelton or New Canaan football teams would have liked.
New Canaan came out flat against St. Joseph, losing 28-0 while Shelton was forced to practice on a grass field at the school and move home games as it waited for the updates at Finn Stadium to be complete.
Luckily for Shelton, the distractions and annoyances of the field saga did not turn into losses though the Gaels’ closest game of the season, a 10-7 win over Fairfield Prep, did come during that stretch.
New Canaan not only lost to St. Joseph but a few weeks later got blown out by Greenwich, leaving its playoff hopes in serious limbo.
The good news for both teams is the drama of any early-season woes seem to be in the rearview mirror as they both head into the most critical time of the year, the Class LL playoffs.
No. 8 New Canaan will travel to Finn Stadium for a Class LL quarterfinal game against No. 1 Shelton Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.
It is the first meeting between the two schools on the gridiron as far as either of their longtime coaches can recall.
Shelton plays in the SCC and has been in Class LL while New Canaan hails from the FCIAC and will be playing in LL for the first time after years of winning state titles in Class M and L.
New Canaan has won 12 state championships and Shelton has won four.
After beating North Haven 28-24 on Oct. 19, Shelton cruised to the finish line, practicing and playing at Finn Stadium and not allowing an opponent within 30 points over the final four games.
“We struggled early in the season with timing. We were playing games on the road and practicing on a grass field. We’d have to cancel practices because it was too muddy. It was a rough start,” Shelton coach Jeff Roy said.
“It is nice to be at home for this playoff game and the kids earned it. The Finn Fanatics will be out there with the new turf and new lights. The state playoffs are where you want to be. The players have worked hard to get here and they are excited to be playing Tuesday.”
New Canaan picked it up down the stretch as well, winning five in a row including a 17-14 win over previously No. 1 Darien on Thanksgiving.
The Rams had to beat Darien to qualify for the playoffs for the 14th straight season.
Coming off an emotional win over their bitter rivals, it took a day for the Rams to refocus on Shelton.
“They moved on as well as can be expected. It took a day of two but that was a big victory for them. Friday they were riding high but by Saturday they were all about Shelton,” New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli said.
“They better be focused because Shelton is a big, physical team and not many teams have been close with them this season. They will probably be the biggest team we face all year, their defensive ends are very athletic, the linebackers are tough, the quarterback can throw and run, the running backs are very solid and the receivers are good. I don’t see a weakness from them.”
The Rams will have to contend with Shelton senior quarterback Jake Roberts, who has passed for 1,293 yards and 16 touchdowns while running for 593 yards and 10 more touchdowns.
On the other side, New Canaan junior signal caller Drew Pyne has been playing his best football over the last month.
Pyne has thrown for 2,045 yards this season and 25 touchdowns but the key to his late-season success has been building a rapport with receivers other than Quintin O’Connell (59 receptions, 866 receiving yards, 11 touchdowns).
“We had a lot of issues against St. Joe’s and Drew has come a long way this season,” Marinelli said. “We had one really good receiver (O’Connell) but (Pyne) has been working with all the receivers and has been building better connections with all of them. Wyatt Wilson was hurt at the beginning of the year but he has stepped up as have a few younger receivers.”
Roy knows his team will have to pressure Pyne to slow him down but that can be easier said than done.
“Their quarterback can wing it. We know we will have our work cut out for us up front because they are very big up there and very good,” Roy said. “New Canaan is also a very smart team, they do not make a lot of unforced mistakes and they have good schemes. We need to not give up big plays to them and then we need to execute our offensive game plan.”
The game has the feeling of a state final between two heavyweight contenders but is actually just the first step for both on the road to what each hopes is yet another berth in a state championship.