Special to CIACSports.com
Many a coach has had to worry about keeping their team motivated to win a state championship.
That hasn’t been a problem for Darien or Shelton this season.
Shelton was on the cusp of winning a state title last season but instead lost in gut-wrenching fashion.
Darien has played in back-to-back state finals and lost both.
Top-seed Shelton plays the second-seeded Blue Wave will try to win that elusive state championship at Saturday’s CIAC Class LL final at Willow Brook Park in New Britain at 2:30 p.m.
The Gaels (12-0) had first-and-goal at the Xavier 1-yard with the score tied at 21 and less than a minute left in last year’s Class LL-Small final. The ball came loose as then-quarterback Mark Piccirillo ran into the pile at the goal line and the Falcons recovered it (Piccirillo said afterwards that his elbow hit the ground first). The Gaels scored first in overtime but missed the extra point, and Xavier went on to win, 28-27.
“That was definitely a motivating factor,” Shelton head coach Jeff Roy said. “Starting in January, we were in the weight room lifting and training and doing everything possible to begin our way back to the finals and win it this year.
Second-ranked Darien (11-0) lost the previous two years to rival New Canaan in Class L. The Blue Wave had already beaten New Canaan on Thanksgiving Day during both seasons.
“The last two years, we’ve been 12-2 and 12-1,” Darien head coach Rob Trifone said. “We went home those last two years feeling like we were 2-12 and 1-12 instead of 12-2 and 12-1.
“You’d think that a team that’s 11-0 right now with a league championship (the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference) would have a little bit of satisfaction. I’m telling you the truth — there’s no satisfaction. We might as well be 0-11 right now because they’re so hungry and so sick and tired of losing. They don’t want to go home on Dec. 12 disappointed for the third straight year.”
Not even injuries have prevented Shelton from reaching the final. Starting running back Peter Hoff and receivers Chris Kanios and Sam Kirk all broke their legs over a six-week period.
“Next man up” sounds great in theory but often doesn’t work because the reserves simply aren’t as good as the starters. The Gaels have made it work and have rarely been challenged this season.
“I’m not that surprised,” Roy said. “I believe in my kids and the system. Almost all of these kids play in the youth program and have experience playing in our system. They believe in each other, and we believe we have a lot of good players.”
Shelton senior Ron Hubbard split carries with classmate and Keith Prior during Monday’s semifinal against Newtown (Hoff was injured in the quarterfinals). Hubbard ran for two touchdowns and threw for another in a 35-28 win. First-year starting quarterback Zach Tuskowski has thrown for 29 touchdowns for the Gaels.
Darien has wasted all but one opponent by 27-or-more points. It won the one time it’s been challenged, 28-21, over Class L finalist New Canaan on Thanksgiving to win the FCIAC title. The Blue Wave demolished two-time defending Class L champion Southington in Monday’s semifinal, 49-7. The Blue Knights had won 31 straight games.
“You’d think that in our Tuesday meeting the day after that game that the buzz would be all about Southington,” Trifone said. “The buzz was all about Shelton. They have very short memories. There’s a task at hand, and they wanted to refocus on what they needed to do on Saturday so as not to have it (a loss) happen a third straight time.”
Senior Timmy Graham has completed 70.6-percent of his passes this season for 2,896 yards and 39 touchdowns for Darien. Four-year starting defensive end Mark Evanchick has 79 tackles, owns the state career sack record (64.5 and counting), and was named the Gatorade Connecticut Football Player of the Year last week.