NEW CANAAN — It’s tough to learn a ton during the abbreviated spring sessions in high school football, but if there’s one thing that New Canaan made clear in the 11th Annual Brian Wilderman Memorial Red and White game Friday afternoon, it’s that the Rams have a chip on their shoulder coming into the 2018 season.
After winning three-straight titles, New Canaan was eliminated in the state semifinals a season ago.
This season, with plenty of talent and experience returning, the Rams are once again title-minded.
“Experience is crucial and experiencing wins and losses, that really develops you as a person and as an athlete,” said Quintin O’Connell, a rising-senior receiver. “To lose, I think we learned more than when we won my sophomore year. We went into last season and didn’t carry a chip on our shoulder. We thought four-peat, this is our season and it didn’t happen. But we learned from that and we’re hoping to take the lessons from the last two teams and combine them and be the best we can be.”
The game is named for Brian Wilderman, a 1997 New Canaan grad who was All-State in football and wrestling and passed away in 2000. The game has the team split in two with half donning red and half white.
The lone player in black was Notre Dame-bound rising-junior quarterback Drew Pyne, who played automatic quarterback for both squads in the first half.
Pyne and O’Connell have proved to be one of the most dangerous combinations in the state the past two years, and wasted no time in showing why Friday — combining for a 35-yard hookup on the first play for the red team.
Of course, once Pyne switched back to the white side and overthrew an open receiver down the left sideline it was O’Connell — his best friend — immediately heckling him from the sideline.
That playful comradery speaks to the mindset of the Rams, who have adopted a team-first, win at all costs mentality for the 2018 season.
“At the end of the day we could have good players and not be a good team,” Pyne said. “We’re just trying to focus on being one team more than anything else. We’re used to having the X on our back, so we’re ready for it.”
QUESTIONS TO BE ANSWERED
Spring football creates position battles and has a tendency to raise more questions than it answers.
Some of those riddles will be solved in the summer training sessions, some during the season.
One position that will need to be addressed is running back. JR Moore was solid in 2017 as a complementary back and figures to get the first shot in the lead role, but guys such as rising-junior Drew Guida will push for playing time all year.
On defense, end Garrett Braden returns for his senior year to anchor the line, and Division I-bound offensive tackles Jack Stewart (Michigan) and Jack Conley (Boston College) will rotate in to provide a boost.
“We have a pretty strong, old and mature line and linebacker corps,” Braden said. “Not a ton of playing experience, but a lot of guys hungry to show what they’ve got. We’re confident in what we got going right now.”
After a heartbreaking, one-goal loss to Darien in the state semifinals, members of the lacrosse team had little time to dwell on the defeat as they had to turn their attention immediately to football just days later.
“New week, new sport,” O’Connell said. “It’s fun. I think that’s why we play multiple sports. By the end of the season you want to win a championship, but once it ends you’re ready to get going to the next thing. It’s healthy because it keeps you engaged.”
For the first time in the Red and White game, the referees on hand were instructed to blow the whistle when the ball-carrier was wrapped up. In other words, New Canaan wasn’t tackling — for the most part.
The idea revolves around safety, but it proved easier said than done with coach Lou Marinelli having to yell, “don’t tackle him” on multiple occasions.
ONE TEAM, ONE GOAL
While there’s big things to come at the next level in the future for multiple players on the team, one thing was made abundantly clear on Friday, and that’s that college visions and personal accolades mean nothing to these Rams.
“I’m confident in what I can do and what my guys can do around me,” Braden said. “And as much as it looks nice and is cool to get those personal achievements, that’s really not what it’s about. We’re about winning. The team goal is 13-0. I don’t care about breaking records or anything like that. I want to win.”
At the end of the day, the Red team came away with a 24-21 victory, but that’s nothing more than a footnote on a day where the players got to go out and do the one thing they love to do.
“Winter was brutal with the cold and spring we’re finishing up school, so this is the best time of the year other than the fall,” Pyne said. “It’s great to get back on the field and get ready in a simulation-type game. It’s great to be out here with all these guys.”