The year 2008 was supposed to be about rebuilding for the New Canaan Rams football program: The team was ranked in the bottom half of the FCIAC’s preseason polls and only a handful of starters from the previous season were returning. They were not expected to accomplish anything special.
Yet they ended up doing exactly that, with unforeseen contributions from a particularly tight-knit squad that would post an undefeated record heading into a dramatic showdown versus New Canaan’s longtime rival before moving on to states—cementing a legacy whose storybook season launched 10 years ago this month.
One of the squad’s returning starters, tri-captain Nate Quinn, switched from defense to quarterback for 2008, marking a dramatic turnaround for what New Canaan had been fielding in recent years at the all-important position.
The Rams had won consecutive state titles in 2006 and 2007 with guys like Curt Casali and Charlie Westfal at QB. They still rank high in the program’s history when it comes to quarterback stats.
“I think everyone who watched from afar didn’t view the position as the strength it was those other years,” Quinn recalled on a recent afternoon. “They were big shoes to fill. Not only were Casali and Westfal terrific leaders for their respective teams, but they were incredible athletes and really good at what they did. It definitely was a little stressful and intimidating. But luckily for me I knew a lot of the guys we had playing that year through the offseason work we did together and had built some good chemistry with them. So I knew we had the weapons and I just approached it as, ‘Hey, don’t mess this thing up.’ ”
In the team’s first game of the season, on a Saturday against Trumbull—a team that had received far more preseason hype than New Canaan—Quinn threw six touchdowns to four different receivers on the way to a convincing 41-13 victory.
One of those receivers was fellow tri-captain Kurt Ondash. Ondash was also a varsity veteran entering the year and very familiar with Quinn as their friendship dates back to their days on the playground at East School. And the connection the two had in 2008 is one well-documented in the New Canaan football record books.
Quinn passed for 2,528 yards and 26 touchdowns that year, ranking him, either solely or in a tie for eighth, on the all-time list for each respective category. And Ondash accounted for 1,201 yards receiving and hauled in 15 touchdowns, placing him, either solely or tied for, third all-time in each respective category.
“Kurt was such a special player,” Quinn said of Ondash. “He definitely made my job easier. He was the type of player who, if I saw one-on-one coverage, I had full confidence he would be open—more often than not that proved to be true. And he’s also the type of player who garnered so much attention from other teams, he would open up the field for other guys to pass it to. Kurt was the ‘go-to’ guy. When we needed a first down or big play he almost always came through for us.”
Ondash echoes such a sentiment for his quarterback.
“Nate’s a really smart guy who works super hard and is a great leader—everything you would want in a QB. We had a lot of confidence in him coming into the season, even with him not having played a game at the position before. Seeing what he was able to do with both his arms and his legs, he was more than ready for the responsibility. A lot of our success that year can be attributed to his performance.”
Ondash and Quinn were, of course, not alone on offense. The unit coordinated by Duncan Dellavolpe, now head coach at Fairfield Warde, included Chris Sciarretta, completing the triumvirate of captains, who split time at the running back position with fellow seniors Sean Simmons and Evan Otis. Joining Ondash out wide were a couple receivers in senior Mike DiRocco as well as junior, Cody Newton—each of whom defenses couldn’t ignore or else they would instantly regret it.
DiRocco maybe didn’t get the notoriety others did but is one Ondash cites as being “tremendously important to our team with his ability to bring down the ball and block in the open field.” Newton, who as a junior really had to break the mold to fit in with the group of seniors surrounding him, became one everybody would celebrate with after each touchdown he accounted for.
And, of course, there was the rock-solid offensive line, who without the group they had, would’ve made it tough to get anything started on offense. It featured a group of seniors led by Sean Donovan, Ben Hornblower, Will Rice and Alex Tharp as well as sophomore Connor Hanratty.
“We’re not talking about the offense like we are now without the great group we had up front,” Sciarretta said.
And with the level of talent the offense had, it amassed point totals few expected it to be capable of entering the year—outscoring their first six opponents 196-39, en route to six straight wins.
While averaging nearly 33 points per game for those first six was impressive, it’s the other side of that dash which tells the other half of 2008’s success story: the defense.
Suffocating, dominant, relentless—that’s the kind of unit that defensive coordinator Joe Dittola developed. It featured tackling machines such as Sciarretta, defensive ends Nick DiRubio, Brandon Leeming and Evan Otis, to standouts in the secondary, coached by Chris Silvestri, such as Ondash, DiRocco, Frank Granito, Chris Millisits and Zach Swanson, and other contributing characters like seniors Wynne Holden, Eddie Padilla and Nick Lemoine, junior James Cody and sophomores Jack Atchue and Ryan Shullman.
“I get chills talking about our defense because of just how dominant we were,” Sciarretta said. “We had a great D-line, an incredible secondary who accounted for a vast majority of FCIAC quarterbacks’ interceptions that year—we just carried ourselves with a certain swagger. We had no problem with stepping on the opponent’s throat, so to speak, and having that attitude helped us play the way we did. It was really neat and incredible to be a part of.”
While New Canaan breezed through its first six games, the team knew their seventh wouldn’t be so easy. It pitted them up against FCIAC foe Staples—an opponent the Rams had lost to in double-OT the year before at home in the rain.
“I recall Nick DiRubio and I sitting at our lockers together after that game vowing to beat them the next year,” Quinn said.
Tom Mazzella, NCHS ’87
In prepping for that game, however, the entire Rams football family received devastating news—former New Canaan quarterback Tom Mazzella had passed away from cancer.
During the summer just ended, head coach Lou Marinelli took guys like Quinn, Ondash and Sciarretta, as well as others, out to a 7-on-7 competition near San Diego to help them prepare for the upcoming season. Knowing Mazzella was ill and living outside the gates of nearby Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton—the branch of the military in which he had once served—Marinelli went to go visit with him and his family.
So, when Mazzella passed just a few months later, it put Marinelli in a state of mind that had his focus anywhere but the football field.
“When Tom passed, I was a wreck,” Marinelli recalled from his office at New Canaan High School. “I was useless that week with my mind going to so many different places. And I think I just told the kids before the game that I don’t know if we’ve done our best job coaching you this week, but let’s go out there and do this. Then they followed that up by saying, ‘Let’s win this one for Tommy.’ ”
Granito is someone who will never forget that week as well.
“I’ve known [coach] Marinelli since 2007 when I got to town and it’s no secret he’s an emotional guy. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him more emotional than he was that week. It hit home with all of us because you really got to see just how much each individual who comes through this program means to him. We had Tom’s father come to a practice that week and spread Tom’s ashes on Dunning Field because that’s what Tom wanted—that’s what the significance of the program was to him. And before the game, coach gave us this message that ‘Life’s not fair.’ That we’d had this dream start to a season and things are going our way but then you look at a guy like Tom Mazzella and what he had to go through and you realize that life’s not fair. And while that was, initially, shocking for us to hear, I think it put us in a frame of mind where we really wanted to do something memorable for coach that day.”
And something memorable did come out of that late-October game.
All afternoon there had been steady, whipping winds with gusts upwards of 40 mph. So, with New Canaan leading, 21-14, late in the fourth quarter, Staples scored a touchdown to pull within one. They then go to line up for the ensuing extra point with the wind still howling around the field. Staples snaps the ball and the kicker boots it toward the left upright—and it goes wide. The Rams and the crowd there to support them went crazy as they sensed victory was within their grasp.
“The win was really important to help honor the memory of Tom Mazzella in the way we wanted to, much more so than preserving our undefeated record,” Sciarretta recalled. “I felt like the winds blew our direction. And whether you believe in divine intervention or in spiritual things of that sort—I like to believe that Tom helped blow that extra point wide and helped us win that day.”
And while the week and game will stick with Marinelli forever due to the special man Tom Mazzella was, that type of win was one that had him thinking this team was bound to accomplish something special with their season.
New Canaan returned to the form it displayed in their first six games for their next three—outscoring their opponents 99-13. That set the stage for a meeting against their arch-rival, Darien in the Turkey Bowl—who was also 10-0.
“We saw Darien play Greenwich in week two with us having played the night before,” Granito recalled. “And we looked at each other then and said, ‘Thanksgiving, it’s going to be 10-0 vs. 10-0.’ We knew it back then and we felt really good about the way we matched up against them.”
The Turkey Bowl gets each respective team and their fanbases amped up, regardless. But make those two teams undefeated and fighting for the right to be crowned FCIAC champion and the intensity surrounding the game becomes exponentially magnified. Demand for tickets was off the charts and caused the FCIAC to move the game’s location from Dunning Field to Stamford High School’s Boyle Stadium. And that Thanksgiving morning, the two towns filled the old stone stadium to capacity.
“Them moving it turned out to be a great thing because of the atmosphere a sold-out Boyle Stadium provides,” Ondash said.
Added Quinn: “We were the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in Connecticut, respectively, at the time. Connecticut football’s not the biggest thing in the world but that day it definitely felt like it with the size of the crowd and the energy it provided all of us. I remember there being people about 10 feet from the back of the endzones. I played a lot of defense that game due to a matchup with one of their receivers. And when they would fade to the back corner of the endzone, there was one pass I remember deflecting and my momentum carried me into the crowd. And the New Canaan fans would slap me on the helmet and yell, ‘Keep it going, Nate. Keep it going.’ Yeah, playing in that type of environment was awesome.”
New Canaan quickly built a 21-0 lead in the first quarter, capped off by a touchdown catch from Ondash, his second of the quarter, that truly illustrated the type of next-level performer he was for the team.
“On the biggest stage in the biggest moment, you saw Kurt at his very best that day,” Granito said. “I remember one play in that game when he caught a ball on the right sideline, then comes all the way back to the left—and you got Evan Otis, Mike DiRocco and Cody Newton coming back from downfield laying out blocks for him—which left Kurt, one-on-one, up against Darien’s best player that year, Nikki Dysenchuk. And Kurt jukes him out of his shoes and you go to yourself, ‘Yeah. This guy is a premier player.’”
Ondash, who also notched an interception to set up New Canaan’s first score that day, was named the Rams’ Jack Dempsey MVP of the game as New Canaan moved to 11-0, topping Darien 28-20.
Next up was the CIAC state tournament. And it was in the semifinal of that tournament against Weaver High School (Hartford) where the Rams encountered their first (and only) deficit of the entire season when Weaver took their opening drive down the field for a touchdown. New Canaan’s response to that was scoring 34 unanswered points, diffusing any doubt that trailing was something they couldn’t handle.
So, after that win, their lone remaining obstacle to an undefeated season was a rematch with Darien, to be played at Trumbull High School.
The team had endured seven road trips by that point of the season, six of which were consecutive, beginning in week four and ending after week nine—a schedule few had ever seen before and have yet to see since. So the Rams had their travel routines down pat, including what playlist they listened to, what part of the bus they sat in, and who sat next to them.
So when the team’s bus broke down on the way to the state championship, it could’ve thrown everyone for a loop. But, ultimately, the team wasn’t fazed.
“Maybe we were a tad frustrated but, to be honest, I think we were pretty relaxed overall,” Ondash said. “We thought it was a funny moment to be a part of. I think that comes back to how close knit we were as a team. We were already confident coming in having just beaten Darien nine days earlier which provided less uncertainties going into a game of such magnitude.”
And their play exemplified just that. After a scoreless first quarter, Darien began the second quarter backed up in their own territory, just outside the endzone. Early in that drive it was the stout defensive line who got the scoring started for the Rams as they notched a safety—their first of the season—for a 2-0 lead. New Canaan then went on to score 24 more points before Darien spoiled the shutout with an inconsequential touchdown in the fourth quarter.
And when the clock showed nothing but zeroes, the sidelines and stands with New Canaan fans emptied onto the field to celebrate the occasion.
“When time ran out, Nick [DiRubio] and I dumped the water jug on Marinelli and it was just pure elation from that point forward,” Granito recalled. “Then you have all our classmates and families out on the field celebrating with us. We received the undefeated t-shirts and we’re all trying to get a picture with everyone we can—it was something else.”
A legacy cemented
That year, 2008, is the lone instance a New Canaan Rams football team coached by Lou Marinelli has achieved such a feat in his storied 37 years and counting at the helm. Therefore it’s a team the head coach will never forget.
“They just refused to lose,” Marinelli said. “Whether it was the 7-on-7’s that preseason or our annual alumni golf outing—they just never lose. We’ve been close to going undefeated both before and since that year, but it just hasn’t happened. As that team gets older, I know they want nothing but the best for the program. But they certainly take pride in the season they accomplished—they’re one of the best teams New Canaan football’s ever had.”
And for the players on that team, because of the family culture Marinelli fosters, their coach is one they will never forget either.
“He cared about us like family,” Sciarretta said. “I’m fighting back tears when I say that. He’s always been there for me. And when you have a guy like that running your team, I’ll tell you this, I’d run through a wall for him. I remember being eight years old and attending the New Canaan football camps and looking up to Marinelli with such awe—I relished the day I would finally play for him. We have such a trust and love for the guy and would do anything for him. It was like playing for a family member.”