COMMENTARY Masuk just plain better than Darien
SHELTON — It wasn’t about spray paint, distractions, suspensions or injuries.
Sometimes, a butt-whooping is nothing more than exactly that.
And on Saturday afternoon at Edward C. Finn Stadium, the Blue Wave football team had its 2010 season end while suffering its worst loss in recent memory. Darien, which last won a state title 1996, a 21-16 decision against Bloomfield, will have to wait another year to get its next chance.
There were eight state semifinal games played all around Connecticut on Saturday; no team got beat as badly as Darien did by the Masuk Panthers. Who ever thought that could’ve been possible? As good as the group has looked this season — especially with a disciplined, intelligent defense — who outside of Monroe was foreseeing a shutout paired with a 41-point loss?
For Masuk, it was just another game. With 7:45 remaining in the fourth quarter, and the score at its eventual final tally of 41-0, the Masuk coaches opted to start kneeling the ball — on the Blue Wave 7-yard line.
Mercy play-calling in the red zone. That’s normally the go-to move for Darien against the also-rans of the FCIAC.
“They didn’t show us anything we haven’t seen all year. Basically, I’d put them up there with New Canaan,” said Graham Maybell, Darien’s senior running back who had 118 yards rushing. “They’re a spread team that can run and pass the ball. They ran sufficiently with Colin Markus and Casey Cochran did what he does best.”
It mandates stating: Masuk didn’t embarrass the Blue Wave; it merely humbled them. The Panthers outplayed Darien, but still had to fight for this win. Darien did not lie down, and there was a lot of pride to match the sadness in the post-game huddle. Without its No. 1 receiver, Darien still moved into Panthers territory five times.
There have been multi-game stretches this season where teams haven’t crossed the 50 on Masuk.
And although the Darien defense had its moments — dropping Cochran, the Gatorade Connecticut High School Football Player, three times behind the line of scrimmage — there were too many missed tackles. And too much time given for Cochran, and too many big plays allowed.
And that’s Masuk. It’s what this team has been about all season long. With regularity, the Panthers have put on the breaks against inferior teams by the second quarter.
“We were ready,” said Maybell, “kids just didn’t come out and play. We shot ourselves in the foot numerous times. I’m not taking anything from Masuk. They’re one hell of a team and I wish them the best of luck in the finals.”
The turnovers, of course, took Darien out of it. The Blue Wave had three of them, none more gut-wrenching than the one that could’ve tied the game at 7 in the first quarter.
After Masuk got out to a 7-0 lead, it was leading a charge into the Blue Wave’s red zone again, and then, a rare mistake by Cochran. He fumbled the ball away, and it was recovered by Charlie Kunze, who only a few plays earlier was slow to walk off the field.
But after Darien managed to march all the way down to the Masuk 1, a Darien running back fumbled as he tried plowing into the end zone. It was recovered by Masuk and, perhaps, Darien’s spirit was broken. Blue Wave coach Rob Trifone admitted his sideline lost some life.
“If we tackle in the first half and if you punch that score in — I mean, we probably had 200 yards of total offense in the first half and not a single point to show for it — it’s hard to gauge where this team belongs,” Trifone said. “(The fumble is) not an excuse, though. You put 11 kids out there against 11 high school kids. But against this team, you weren’t getting away with it.”
When you have to play perfectly against a near-perfect opponent, losing an opportunity like that can sometimes rip your spirit to shreds.
“That was just one of many times we shot ourselves in the foot,” Maybell said. “We stole this one away from ourselves.”
Still, it was Darien’s best scoring chance. Even with that touchdown, it’s probably not going to change the outcome — but few things keep a football coach awake like red zone turnovers.
“We knew their defense was going to be tough and hard to move the ball against, as it was, so if you punch that one in, it’s a ball game,” Trifone said. “Now, it’s just the opposite.”
On the ensuing Panthers possession, the team went 80 yards and scored on a 3-yard touchdown by Markus, his second of the game. With 10:12 remaining and a 14-0 deficit, how would Darien respond? Answer: uncharacteristically. The biggest fault you could charge Darien with Saturday was its inability, often, to tackle at the point of attack. The second and third guys to the ball missed with regularity, too.
“I have no explanation for it,” Trifone said of the poor tackling. “Once again, we’re a team that’s playing at about 80 percent strength, and even at that 80 percent, on Thursday, I had about eight starters who couldn’t practice because they were getting therapy.”
After starting the game 4 for 4 for 73 yards, Blue Wave quarterback Chris Allam’s next 10 passes fell incomplete, including the fourth-and-6 pass intended for Maybell with 1:33 remaining in the first half down 21-0. That turnover on downs was the unintended opportunity for the Panthers to put the game away.
Three players later, Cochran hit Thomas Milone on a screen pass, and after a bevy of missed, Milone ran 45 yards to pay dirt, bloating the lead to 28-0. By halftime, Cocharan had 266 through the air.
“Obviously he’s good, but boy is he surrounded by some very good players,” Trifone said.
The second half was a slow death for Darien, which still had a heck of a year. For all the storylines that high school football brings in Connecticut, for good and bad, who delivered more than the Blue Wave this year? No one.
“You have to put today in perspective. We were a 10-0 team that faced huge obstacles come Thanksgiving Day,” Trifone said. “You couldn’t rebound on Thanksgiving Day from it, but five or six days later, you were able to. & Winning the quarterfinals. Up until that point, it was still a magical season. And I’m sure once we digest it, it still will be. 11-2 is 11-2. The FCIAC championship: you can’t take away from these kids. I think once we reflect back and put this one on the shelf, they’ll feel pretty damn good about themselves.”
The team saved its hugs, tears and goodbyes to a dramatic season for the locker room at Darien High School, behind closed doors, where everything and everyone could be addressed. After the game was over, a quick speech from Trifone and then the march to the warm bus. Maybell wasn’t ready to embrace his career being over, but accepted it and looked back fondly on what the team did in the face of everything it was challenged with.
“It went by fast. That’s all I can say,” Maybell said. “I remember scrimmaging Hillhouse back in August, and then Bridgeport Central & and then, next thing you know, we’re right here. This is the last time I’ll play football. I’m happy how it turned out. I wish we would’ve won and could’ve gone to the state finals & but I’m happy with this season and will always remember it.”