Senior co-captains (l-r) Teddy Hood, Tommy Root, Ryan O'Connell and James Freyre walk out to midfield for the last time before New Canaan's 35-20 win over Windsor in the Class L Championship, Dec. 10, 2016. Credit: Terry Dinan
Lots of rings in this group. (l-r) Kevin Macari, Andrew DeFranco, Kyle Smith, Cole Harris, Nick Cascione, Michael Root and Mike Collins attend New Canaan's 35-20 win over Windsor in the Class L Championship, Dec. 10, 2016. Credit: Terry Dinan
Scenes from New Canaan's 35-20 win over Windsor in the Class L Championship, Dec. 10, 2016. Credit: Terry Dinan
As darkness enveloped New Britain’s Veterans Memorial Stadium, Lou Marinelli stood alone at midfield, long after his New Canaan Rams defeated Windsor 35-20 for their fourth straight Class L championship.
“I don’t want to leave,” Marinelli said. “We’re counting down the minutes on the sidelines and I’m saying, ‘Damn, I can’t wait until it’s over.’ But now I don’t want it to be over.”
For Marinelli, the time to reflect is well-deserved. The win marked the 12th state title in his 36 years as head coach of the Rams and his 331st career victory, tying former West Haven and St. Joseph coach Ed McCarthy for the most wins in state history.
“It means I’m getting old,” Marinelli told NewCanaanite.com. “Eddie is a class act, and so for me to be tied with Eddie—I should retire right now so we could go out together.”
The way the Rams have made state championships a December rite of passage in recent years, New Canaan fans are probably hoping the venerable coach never leaves.
No. 2 New Canaan (12-1)—led by a bend-but-don’t-break performance from its defense—took a 21-14 halftime lead before pulling away from top-seeded Windsor (12-1) in the second half behind the brilliant running of Graham Braden.
The senior has been a godsend for New Canaan since taking over the feature back duties at the tail end of the season and capped off a sensational playoff run with a 24-carry, 186-yard performance against the Warriors on Saturday afternoon. 102 of those yards came in the second half for Braden, who added an 8-yard touchdown reception from freshman quarterback Drew Pyne. Pyne completed 11 of 14 passes for 141 yards and two scores on the day.
“If there was an MVP, I’d think [Braden] would have to get it,” Marinelli said. “He was a backup running back and he might have 1,200 yards now. He didn’t even know if he wanted to play—he was a lacrosse kid going to play at Denison. But he is electric, and when Ryan O’Connell got hurt, we didn’t even miss a beat.”
The New Canaan defense, which turned back two Windsor drives inside their 10-yard line in the first quarter, made some significant halftime adjustments to keep the Warriors’ Boston College-bound running back Timothy Gardner in check. Gardner picked up 105 rushing yards on the day, but only five came in the second half.
“They’ve been doing it all year,” Marinelli said. “[Defensive Coordinator] Chris Silvestri has some things that he does with the defense as far as moves and stunts, so you never really know where we’re coming from. I’m impressed with them every day at practice because we have to go against them offensively and it’s frustrating as hell, so I know what Windsor went through. Chris has made me look good as a player and an assistant coach and now as an assistant head coach.”
O’Connell—back in the offensive mix after being relegated to defensive duty for much of the playoffs due to a lingering ankle injury—was also a factor on offense, as the senior co-captain scored two touchdowns and led the Rams with nine receptions for 98 yards while picking up 23 on the ground.
“It hasn’t really sunk in that my football career is over, but what a way to end it,” O’Connell said. “With these guys—there’s not another group of guys I’d like to do it with. I couldn’t be happier.”
“It’s bittersweet,” senior co-captain Teddy Hood said. “It’s a great way to end but at the same time I can’t believe that it’s all ending right now. I love this group of guys—it’s a really special senior class. Not many can say they’ve won four in four years at the high school.”
Hood—the leader of a dominant offensive line that included Will Conley, Jack Stewart, Will Ahrens, Tiernan Brady and Chris White—actually got New Canaan on the board with the game’s first score, lining up as a fullback.
Windsor took the game’s opening drive all the way down to the New Canaan 7-yard line, before the defense dug in and forced the Warriors to a turnover on downs at the 16. The Rams then engineered an 11-play, 84-yard scoring drive capped off by Hood’s 2-yard plunge—the first touchdown of his football career—giving New Canaan a 7-0 lead with 3:56 to play in the first quarter.
New Canaan quickly added to that lead as sophomore linebacker Garrett Braden recovered a Windsor fumble—forced by Rams senior co-captain James Freyre—at the Warriors 8-yard line. One play later Pyne found Graham Braden on a swing pass for a touchdown, extending the Rams lead to 14-0 with 3:09 left in the first.
Windsor took the ensuing drive to the New Canaan 6-yard line where the Rams defense once again responded. Warriors quarterback Jahkari Grant recovered his own fumble back at the 17-yard line, and a holding call moved Windsor to the 31. One play later, Grant was picked off by New Canaan co-captain Tommy Root, ending the scoring threat.
Field position—and momentum—swung the Warriors’ way in the second quarter, as a failed New Canaan fake punt on fourth down set Windsor up with a first-and-10 at the Rams 33. Six plays later Grant scored on a 12-yard QB keeper, cutting the New Canaan lead to 14-7 with 6:27 left in the half.
A New Canaan fumble on the next offensive series gave Windsor another short field with which to work, setting up on the Rams 29-yard line. Two plays after converting a fourth-and-1 at the New Canaan 7, Windsor running back Timothy Gardner scored from a yard out, knotting the game at 14 with 2:40 left in the half.
New Canaan responded immediately with a quick-strike, four-play scoring drive on the ensuing possession, moving 60 yards in just 1:06. After Pyne hit O’Connell on a 26-yard catch-and-run touchdown, the Rams had a 21-14 lead with 1:32 to go in the second quarter.
The Rams added to that lead on the opening possession of the second half, driving down to the Windsor 14. Junior kicker Grant Morse nailed a 31-yard field goal to put New Canaan up 24-12 with 10:10 left in the third. Five minutes later another Morse field goal—this time from 21 yards out—gave the Rams a 27-14 third quarter lead.
After forcing a Windsor punt at the end of the third quarter, New Canaan put the game away with its next offensive series—a 14-play, 61-yard drive that took nearly seven minutes off the clock in the final stanza. Ryan O’Connell finished it with an 11-yard touchdown run, giving the Rams a 35-14 lead with 5:10 left in the game.
Windsor pulled to within 35-20 as Grant hit Gardner for a 7-yard touchdown pass with 2:03 remaining. Grant Morse recovered the ensuing onside kick, sealing the championship for New Canaan—a team that at the start of the season faced many skeptics and doubters in its quest for a four-peat.
“It really hasn’t hit me yet,” Tommy Root said. “It’s just a dream come true and I’m just honored to be a part of this.”
“This is why we do it, this is why we play,”James Freyre told NewCanaanite.com. “We’ve written that no matter what expectations you come into, you can smash them. You have to prove them wrong and don’t let other people tell you what you can do. If you know you can be the best, go out there and be the best you can be.”
#2 New Canaan vs. #1 Windsor - Class L State Championship, Dec. 10, 2016 at Veterans Memorial Stadium, New Britain, CT
*NC – Teddy Hood 2-yd. run (Grant Morse kick)
*NC – Graham Braden 8-yd. pass from Drew Pyne (Morse kick)
*W – Jakhari Grant 12-yd. run (Eric Foster kick)
*W – Timothy Gardner 1-yd. run (Foster kick)
*NC - Ryan O'Connell 26-yd. pass from Pyne (Morse kick)
*NC - Morse 31-yd. FG
*NC - Morse 21-yd. FG
*NC - O'Connell 11-yd. run (Braden 2-yd. pass from Spencer Williams)
*W - Gardner 7-yd. pass from Grant (kick failed)