A return to form
Football returns to form in convincing Class L road win over Wethersfield
WETHERSFIELD -- Less than a week after five rogue players damaged the program's reputation, those remaining on the Darien football team redeemed some faith from within by giving their head coach the best birthday present he could ask for.
Rob Trifone enthusiastically thanked his team in the post-game huddle for the convincing 31-7 Class L quarterfinal win Tuesday night over fourth-seeded Wethersfield. As the clock wound to triple zeros, the Darien faithful that made the 90-minute drive north serenaded Trifone by singing "Happy Birthday."
No. 5 Darien dominated the game, but it took until late in the fourth quarter for the score to reflect it.
"This is where you find out if your team has it or not," senior Charlie Kunze said. "We started out a little slow, but we've been a second-half team all year. This shows the team's character, how we were able to bounce back from what was a really ugly game against New Canaan."
Kunze, a defensive end, left the game in the first half of last Thursday's 42-14 loss against New Canaan with a left high-ankle sprain. His availability for this contest was a mystery in the immediate aftermath of the Turkey Bowl.
"Yesterday," Kunze said in response to when he knew, for sure, he'd be able to play. "I went to the doctor, got some more physical therapy done, and felt good. Not 100 percent, but good enough that I was confident I could play my game."
His return was a physical and spiritual morale boost for a defense that returned to form at Joe Cottone Field. The Blue Wave held the Eagles to 76 yards on 28 carries. Wethersfield quarterback Steven Vasquez (44 yards on 11 carries) was rarely called upon to pass, connecting on just 3 of 11 throws for -14 yards after factoring in yardage lost on four sacks.
"We knew we were the bigger, faster, more physical team," Darien senior Jake Weil said. "We weren't about [Vasquez]. He was small and he was quick, but we've got Tucker (Morehouse), Kunze, we've got (James) Shanley, all those guys. ... It's great to have Kunze back, I'm not gonna lie. It helps the secondary, everyone out."
Relatively speaking, Darien ditched its normally reliable ground game for most of the night. When it was over, the Blue Wave totaled 132 yards on 26 carries. Quarterback Chris Allam had 59 of those yards on 11 scampers. He also ran for a touchdown.
"The Thanksgiving loss really dwelled inside us," Darien senior Graham Maybell said. "I can't even describe the feeling I had when I was out on that field. A lot of the guys were down after that game, we just came back the next day, warmed up, got the lactic acid out of our bodies and went back to work and knew that wasn't the last game of our season. And we weren't going to let this be the last game of our season."
The two plays that essentially won the game for the Blue Wave came midway through the final quarter. On a third-and-17, after two false-start penalties pushed Darien back to the Wethersfield 38, Allam (12 for 34, 187 yards) rolled right and found a wide-open Brian Wiegand, who had four catches for 52 yards, in the middle of the field for a first down.
On the next play, Allam ran 13 yards up the middle on a draw to extend the lead to 21-7 with 7:53 remaining in the game.
Wethersfield, when down 14-7, never regained its composure after a nine-play drive was quickly halted on a bad snap that led to Peter McDonough recovering the fumble on the Darien 38 with 5:51 left in the third quarter
"Rebounding, we're not going to call it rebounding," Weil said of the team's strong performance after getting worked by the Rams on Turkey Day. "We're going say we were looking forward to this. It was a little bit of a setback, we had guys who were injured, and you know what, they came back, we stepped it up."
The Blue Wave dominated the first half despite not putting up big plays and largely struggling in the passing game. Peter Gesualdi, the reliable sophomore running back, only had his number called twice, gaining 10 yards in the process. Gesualdi had the game's final points, an 11-yard touchdown that came following an interception by Jared Murphy.
"We'd drive and then we'd stall," Maybell (four catches, 54 yards) said. "We didn't run because they loaded that box. ... With that, the bubble screens were open, and from there the offense picked up."
Trifone didn't lead Wethersfield on early at all. He was confident in trying to win with defense and Allam's arm, saying, "We knew they were going to pack the box with eight, nine guys. They're big and physical, so with play-action and throwing the ball, later on we came back to the run."
The big Blue Wave play of the first half didn't come on offense or defense -- it was a fake punt with just under six minutes to go. The call was a direct snap to Allam, who threw a touch pass to Gesuladi, who then scampered for 21 yards down the Eagles' 18 with 5:54 left.
After 24 minutes, the Blue Wave had 152 yards of offense to the Eagles' -1, which came in large part because of three big, yardage-losing sacks on Vasquez .
"He's a shifty, tough kid, but of course our defense is quick," Trifone said. "We're still only at about 80 to 85 percent, personnel-wise. And we're going to have to limp through the states at about 85 percent."
Two of the sacks came on the first two Wethersfield series in the first quarter, which totaled -22 yards. The second sack led to the first of two Darien safeties. After Wethersfield lined up to punt from its 11-yard line, Kevin Prempto's punt was blocked into the back of the end zone by Justin Coley and Cody Dizeo, giving the Blue Wave a 5-0 lead with 4:42 left in the first.
The third huge loss behind the line curbed Wethersfield's final drive of the half, when Vasquez got caught 18 yards back on a scramble, as Morehouse recorded his second sack of the game.
The only big play the Eagles had in the first half came on a third-and-10, the last play of the first quarter. Senior running back Chris Lesure busted open down the left sideline and ran for 68 yards, advancing from the Wethersfield 19 to the Darien 13. Two plays later, Lesure ran it in from eight yards out with 11:06 left in the half to give the Eagles a 7-5 lead.
"They had one nice play that we gave up, but other than that I thought the defense played well," Kunze said. "Bend-don't-break has always been our philosophy. We're going to have to tighten up for Masuk, because their offense is unbelievable."
Darien got the game to 14-7 the hard way; after a Darien punt pinned the Eagles deep in their territory, Lesure was tackled in the end zone with 32.7 seconds left in the half.
Given all the program has been through in the past week, the team was both thrilled with the win and all too aware that perhaps the biggest test of the year, Masuk, awaits while the Blue Wave's roster won't be at 100 percent for that game Saturday.
"Well, of course we're missing five individuals from the incident," Trifone said. "Kunze is at about 85 percent himself, playing one way; Will Weinstock is not ready yet. We're getting there. We're better than we were on Thanksgiving. We were decimated on Thanksgiving."