By Ned Griffen
Special to CIACSports.com
The CIAC Class LL football final features two teams with differing brands of momentum.
Defending Class LL champion Darien has been the state’s hottest team for nearly two seasons. It has a 23-game winning streak, currently the longest in Connecticut.
Ridgefield is arguably the hottest team of the moment having won seven in a row, the last two in which they had to rally from double-digit deficits on the road against two of the state’s best teams.
Top-seeded Darien and the No. 7 Tigers will play for the title on Saturday in an All-Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference get-together at West Haven High (2:30 p.m.)
“Let me tell you, Ridgefield is playing as well as anyone in the state right now,” Blue Wave head coach Rob Trifone said. “To go into West Haven, and then five days later Shelton, and win two road games? I don’t care who you are, that speaks volumes about the character of those kids.”
Ridgefield head coach Kevin Callahan said of Darien, “Here’s a team that has a (23-game) winning streak. They’re rolling now. They’re confident.”
The Blue Wave (12-0) have been the top-ranked team in The Day state coaches’, and the Hartford Courant and GameTimeCT.com/New Haven Register media polls all season. It has wins over Class L finalist New Canaan (a 37-34 overtime win on Thanksgiving) and Class M finalist St. Joseph (a 48-14 victory on Sept. 10).
“Last year’s team probably had a little more flash to it,” Trifone said. “This year’s team is more like lunch-pail kids. The kids come in and they punch-in and they go to work. It’s kind of business as usual.”
A new group of offensive threats have emerged for Darien this season, led by senior Finlay Collins. He’s run for 786 yards and 12 touchdowns and caught 29 passes for 411 yards and two scores.
Senior Brian Peters has thrown for 3,049 yards with 31 touchdowns in his first season as the Blue Wave’s starting quarterback.
Junior Mitchell Pryor has rushed for 735 yards and 13 touchdowns for Darien. Its top receivers have been senior Tim Herget (35 catches, 640 yards, 6 touchdowns) and junior Nick Green (32 catches, 527 yards, 6 touchdown receptions, and 5 rushing TDs).
The Blue Wave defense has held seven teams to 14-points or less. That includes playoff wins over Greenwich (29-3, quarterfinals) and then-unbeaten Southington (38-7). Collins, who plays linebacker, leads the team in tackles (85) with five sacks. Senior ends Cord Fox (73 tackles, 10 sacks) and Quinn Fay (69 tackles, 12 sacks) and Michigan-bound tackle Andrew Stueber have been among the defensive leaders.
“They’re solid across the board,” Callahan said of Darien. “Their front line on defense is extremely big and physical. We’re not a big and physical team. We’re more finesse.
“We’re definitely going to have our hands full matching up with the physicality of that team. Hopefully we play fast enough to get the ball out and keep it moving.”
The Tigers (10-2) have been one of the top stories of the playoffs. They trailed then-unbeaten West Haven by 14 points in the second quarter of their Nov. 29 quarterfinal before rallying to win.
Ridgefield trailed Shelton 21-3 in the second quarter of Monday’s semifinal and 41-31 with less than five minutes remaining in the game.
“This team has revealed some of their inner qualities as we’ve moved along and been tested,” Callahan said.
The Tigers started the season 3-2 after second-year quarterback Drew Fowler suffered a shoulder injury in the second quarter of a Week 2 game at New Canaan. They trailed 17-14 at halftime. Their offense stalled out without Fowler as the Rams rolled to a 41-21 win.
Fowler, a senior, returned with three weeks left in Ridgefield’s regular season and started the last five games. He’s thrown for 1,738 yards with 22 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.
“Drew is really the catalyst of the team,” Callahan said. “Mentally, he’s just a great kid. … He (plays) with such, I don’t know of you can say ‘elegance’ in football, but he does it with such calmness.”
The Ridgefield offense poses unique problems for any defense. Senior Shane Palmer is trouble as a runner (969 yards, 9 TDs) and receiver (43 catches, 731 yards, 12 TDs).
Equally troublesome are the Tigers’ twin towers at receiver, seniors Chris Longo (6-foot-3) and Collin Lowe (6-5). Longo has 73 catches for 1,047 yards and 7 touchdowns. Lowe had 43 catches for 719 yards and 11 TDs.
“They probably have the best set of receivers in the state,” Trifone said about Ridgefield. “Now I haven’t seen everybody, so perhaps that’s an unfair statement, but of everyone I’ve seen, they have the best four-or-five receivers collectively of anyone. And then you put (Palmer) in the backfield, oh my God.”