DARIEN — The calendar may read September, but as far as Darien was concerned, a cool Friday night game felt just like December football.
Quarterback Peter Graham hooked up with receiver Michael Minicus for three first-half touchdowns as the No. 5 Blue Wave defeated No. 9 Southington, 24-8, in a battle of Class LL playoff contenders at Darien High School.
Both defenses looked strong, as neither offense had a rhythm in the second half, and Darien’s first-half lead was just too much for the Blue Knights to overcome.
“It’s a state playoff game in September,” Darien head coach Rob Trifone said. “We may see them again and we’ll see what happens down the line, but the kids responded well tonight.”
“Southington’s a great program and we came out strong against them in the first half,” senior co-captain J.H. Slonieski said. “I’m very proud of all the guys. The second half was not as strong, and we would’ve liked to have gotten the shutout on defense, but other than that we had a pretty solid all-around game.”
Darien and Southington last met in the 2016 Class LL semifinals, with the Wave winning 38-7 en route to the second of its three straight state championships. The two teams also meet in the 2015 Class LL semis with Darien winning that 49-7.
Darien’s defense was on point for the second straight week, as they held Southington running back Dillon Kohl, who ran for 173 yards against Conard, to just 15 rushing yards. The Wave also forced four interceptions — one each from Austin Dehmel, who was playing with a cast on his arm, and Charlie Silsby and two from Connor O’Malley, who returned one for the game’s final touchdown.
Defensively, the Knights also had a solid game with linebackers Billy Carr, Max Casella and safety Johnny Carreiro leading the way.
“Our D did a great job,” Southgton head coach Mike Drury said. “I think they had five consecutive three-and-outs at one point. That was huge and they gave us a lot of opportunities. Unfortunately, offensively, we really didn’t get a rhythm, we couldn’t get things going. Too many mistakes, dropped balls and turnovers. You can’t have that against a team like this.”
For Darien, quarterback Peter Graham completed 16-of-32 passes for 243 yards and three touchdowns, with Minicus catching four passes for 116 yards and the three TDs. Jackson Peters had three catches for 57 yards, and Ryan Mulliken caught three passes for 46 yards.
The Wave put the first points on the board with 4:19 remaining in the first quarter when Graham completed a fourth-and-six pass to Minicus for a 34-yard touchdown.
After the defense forced a turnover on downs, Graham and Minicus again hooked up, as the quarterback threaded the ball between two defenders.
“I had a post and Peter threw it right in between the two guys and when I jumped up to catch it, I guess they didn’t secure the tackle,” Minicus said. “So I just had a free pass to the end zone. He was throwing great balls. Right as I was coming out my cut, the ball was already in the air, right on the money.”
Southington was looking to cut into the lead when it got to the red zone late in the second quarter, but O’Malley intercepted a pass and returned it to the 46-yard line and, on the next play, Graham went to Minicus again for another touchdown and an 18-0 halftime lead.
The Knights scored the only points of the third quarter when Darien was called for holding in the end zone for a safety to make it 18-2.
In the fourth, Southington found the end zone on offense when quarterback Brady Lafferty threw a 10-yard strike to Josh Vitti with 2:21 remaining. The conversion pass failed, however, leaving the Wave up 10 at 18-8.
The Knights got the ball back one more time, but O’Malley intercepted a pass and returned it 21 yards for a TD to end the scoring.
Slonieski gave credit to the play of Darien’s defensive line for its performance.
“Our defensive line played fantastic, so credit to them. Charlie Hunter, Jackson Walsh, David Evanchick, Teddy Christensen, Will Bothwell — there’s so many guys and they all filtered in and did a really good job. That’s a tough Southington offense.”
PLAYING FOR RILEY
The Blue Wave dedicated the game to their team manager, Riley Mack, who was unable to be at the stadium on Friday, and the team took photos with a No. 12 flag, signifying Mack as their 12th man.
“Riley is our team manager and the kids have really taken to him,” Trifone said. “He’s new in town and when I first met him, he said he was very nervous coming into this big school, and I told him Riley, you’re going to have 70 friends and brothers right away. This team took him under their wing and I am blown away by how generous and kind these kids are.”
“We were playing for Riley Mack, who is literally the best kid in the world,” Slonieski said. “He’s our team manager and he’s going through a tough time right now, so we want him to know he’s got a family in us.”
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Michael Minicus, Darien. The senior wide receiver put on a show with three first-half touchdowns which covered 34, 28 and 46 yards. His second catch was highlight-reel stuff, as he caught a pass in tight coverage and somehow held on to the ball before breaking away for the TD.
“(This win) was definitely important. We didn’t really feel like we were respected enough at the beginning of the year, not being in the top five. But definitely big games and big wins will help us out.” — Darien senior receiver Michael Minicus
DARIEN 24, SOUTHINGTON 8
Southington 0 0 2 6 – 8
Darien 12 6 0 6 – 24