The Face They Needed To See: Marian revives Darien basketball
It is a curiously warm Sunday morning, and the reminders of Darien sporting success here are inescapable.
Banners bedeck the room's high, dull walls commemorating multiple state titles won by boys and girls teams in lacrosse, volleyball, tennis, gymnastics, cross country, outdoor track, indoor track and swimming. Similarly emblazoned are flags that honor the all-time bests in boys golf, football and field hockey. You can almost hear the sewing machine hum distantly, ready to stitch `2014'into the next blue and white championship cloth.
What is this place?
It is the single arena where efforts to merely meet mediocrity have been a losing war for more than 20 years.
The basketball court.
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The home of only one Blue Wave championship, claimed back when the gorgeous states of Alaska and Hawaii were known instead as faraway U.S. territories--1958.
Yet today, times are changing. The tides have turned. The war, it appears, is being won.
It is a curiously warm Sunday morning, and the Darien boys basketball team is huddled inside this very gym, listening intently to the words of its general, fourth-year coach Kyle Marian.
For the first time in two and a half decades, the Blue Wave have earned themselves a berth into the state tournament. But before Darien, 10-8, can make more history, it must make do with the final two opponents on its regular season slate, Westhill and Stamford.
Marian, ever intent on meeting smaller goals before taking aim at a larger one, stresses this to his team, which nods together in complete agreement.
From afar, the 31-year old is alike any basketball man you will ever meet.
Restless are his eyes, searching for every soft cut, lazy defensive rotation and careless foul. Strung around his throat is the whistle, permanently on duty. Further down is the watch, wrapped tightly around his wrist to serve as a constant reminder that the clock is always ticking towards another buzzer.
Stepping back, you take in the loose blue and gray sweats that adorn his six-foot-nine frame from head to toe. In the middle, an emblem representing Darien basketball is sewn almost directly over his heart, where the program has lived ever since he was a player from 1999 to 2001. And finally, of course, down below, shine the supersized Nikes.
However, Marian is no ordinary ball coach.
The path he took back to his roots, one that included stops at Massachusetts' Cushing Academy, Division-III Springfield College, two professional leagues in Europe and down the road at Rye Country Day School, was by no means normal. He describes his drills and methods as unusual and readily accepts all of these different realities, for they have made him the man he is today.
The man who, as a boy, shot hoops alone at three and four in the morning on countless rainy Darien nights.
The man who, during his physical prime, suffered a career-ending knee injury in a foreign country.
The man who today, out of love of the game, his hometown and proving doubters wrong, has seemingly accomplished the impossible.
* * *
Marian's whistle wails.
The Blue Wave players, now in the midst of an intense drill designed to break full-court pressure defense, screech to a halt. Bent over by exhaustion, they turn to their coach.
"This is the pace Westhill wants you to run," he declares calmly. "Why? Because they know you can't handle it. Let's slow down and run something."
Truthful, direct and composed. This is how practice has been for over an hour.
The next possession, executed slower and crisper, yields a score.
"Good. See how easy that is?" Marian says.
Achieving any form of true team basketball is difficult no matter the level of play. But who is going to talk back to the man in charge of end-of-practice sprints?
To understand the recent history of Darien boys basketball is to understand some of the farthest, most painful depths of losing. Marian, as a Blue Wave coach, fan, amateur program historian and former player all rolled into one, knows this well.
At the turn of the millennium, his first year on the varsity squad, Darien failed to win a single game in 20 tries. Then, propelled by Marian's all-FCIAC season at center the following winter, the Blue Wave jumped up to a program high-water mark of four wins. His final playing year initiated a stretch of nine seasons that featured four different head coaches, none of whom could put forth a winning record.
In the campaign that preceded Marian's takeover, the Blue Wave staked only one victory over a small high school from southern Maine.
Losing wasn't just in the record books. It was in the air.
"The program was almost plague-ish," the coach recalled. "People didn't even want to be a part of it. Kids would rather play in the rec. leagues than for their varsity team."
Marian, coming off a very successful four-year stint at Rye Country Day School where he had won a New York state title as an assistant, battled the plague immediately in his first year. To open its 2010-11 season, the Blue Wave won an early 49-42 decision at Trumbull. Next, Darien dropped 11 straight.
"In my first year, the culture of the program was always heads down and `Here we go again. Same old, same old'," he said. "So, I was yelling at every halftime and postgame talking about what it means to compete, to value what you're doing, to not allow yourself to be stepped on and not going into games expecting to be punched, but instead punching first."
Knowing it couldn't compete with other FCIAC programs athletically, Darien, as it still does today, utilized a variety of tactics on both ends of the floor to keep games close. By year's end, the Blue Wave would squeak out two more victories by a combined margin of eight points and limp to a 3-17 overall mark.
However, they couldn't avoid every blowout. St. Joseph's unloaded on Darien during an 86-31 massacre in early February of 2011. Ten months afterward, Ridgefield tipped off its new season with a 50-point drubbing of the Blue Wave at home.
"Coaches would say to me `Best of luck tonight. We feel for you'," Marian said.
Marian's second year, marked by the theme of "Ring the Bell," actually rung up one fewer victory than his debut campaign did. The games were closer, but the wins remained out of reach.
As the season dragged on, the young coach would preach to his team about earlier times when city officials would ring bells to alert coastal residents that a tidal wave was coming. While Darien hadn't become a force yet, it was coming soon. Therefore, perhaps even next year, it was time to ring the bell.
Or so the Blue Wave hoped.
* * *
Back at practice, one of Marian's players crashes hard to the floor in efforts to draw an offensive foul against a teammate.
It doesn't work.
"They would've called that a charge at Duke, but not here," the coach smiles, referring to the Blue Devils' win over Syracuse the night before that ended on a controversial call.
Picking themselves back up, the Blue Wave return to the five-on-five drill designed to refine their offensive sets. The energy is palpable, stretching the slight smile ever further across Marian's face.
Suddenly, it vanishes.
Chima Azuonwu, Darien's hulking 6' 10", 250-pound center, leaves the ball unprotected on his way to slamming home a thunderous dunk. While the play's final result may seem favorable, the big man's method to scoring two points was not. The whistle wails again.
Coolly, Marian takes the time to explain Azuonwu's mistake, share the solution with all players and call for the play to be run again. For this is how Darien has gotten to where it is today: treating errors as teaching moments and perfecting the process.
Two games from post-season, they're not about to change things now.
TURNING THE TIDE
After more than a decade of losing, one would never believe that a fan base in any sport could expect its beloved team to go undefeated. But upon the arrival of Azuonwu and his brother, the highly touted Matt Staubi, that's damn near were expectations stood at the beginning of the 2012-13 campaign. The two juniors from Rye, N.Y. , were projected to lift the program to unheard-of heights, while simultaneously acclimate to a team that had finally grown together.
Staubi, a lightning-quick guard who could fill the basket as fast as he could blow by you, was to take the reins. Azuonwu, who currently operates as a double-double machine, would dominate the paint.
Had the tidal wave finally arrived? No, not quite yet.
The Blue Wave lost 10 of 11, following back-to-back December victories over Greenwich and Staples. Next, injuries derailed the newcomers' years, and Azuonwu still worked to master the game's finer points on the fly.
The results, a 4-16 overall record, appeared by no means favorable, particularly given the outside expectations. But, excluding the injuries, the process was sound. The improvement shown by players who had grown up in the new program was tangible. They, like their coach, just needed time.
From the day of his hiring, Marian declared he had a 10-year plan to reform the program. His system, rooted in the proper development of younger players, speaks to always set attainable goals first. Then, reach them. Then, set new ones.
"I've grown a lot under him," said Darien senior George Phillips. "The biggest thing for me personally has been growth in confidence. He's helped me play my best and play confidently."
This philosophy grew from his days at Rye Country Day School, when he worked under head coach Vin Minotti. Minotti, who serves in a day-to-day role as the assistant athletic director at Mamaroneck High School, has led the Wildcats to two New York state titles in the last five years.
The coaching veteran passed on many lessons to Marian, including the concept that he must be always the face his team needs in see in the given moment. Whether it be stern, encouraging or outraged, the headman must adapt.
However, most importantly, Minotti tapped into his protege's great sense of pride.
"I'm always going to be passionate about what I do," Marian said. "I've been lucky enough to be one of those people who when they set a goal in life for themselves, they've gone out and got it. Anytime anyone's said that I can't do it, I will to a fault go out to try to prove them wrong."
Of course, personal pride can only take a man so far, a fact even Marian readily admits. Fortunately for Darien, the tidal wave of winning finally arrived to inspire them in 2013-14.
Last December, the Blue Wave raced out to a 5-2 start, headlined by triumphs over playoff-bound McMahon and Trumbull. Next, they stumbled in close contests against Harding and Trinity Catholic, struggling to find a collective rhythm. However, Darien fought back tp best Bassick at home and then claim two of its next three road contests on last-minute possessions.
"He's found a way to get us to buy into everything that we need to be doing," Staubi said. "Early in the season, we were losing close games and everyone wanted a bigger role. But he's brought us together and now we're playing really well."
At the final buzzer of its 54-52 victory in Danbury, the Blue Wave had at last clinched eight wins on the season and a coveted post-season berth.
What did it feel like to shatter 24 years of depraved history?
"It was just a big breath," Marian said. "A big, deep breath and a sigh that the monkey's off our back."
* * *
Three days prior to its Sunday practice, Darien is drained.
Thanks to a nail-biting finish with Norwalk the night before, the Blue Wave is a step slower than rival New Canaan today, who has built a 10-point lead.
It's only the second quarter.
The Rams are attacking Darien's patented 2-3 zone with rapid passing and prolonged possessions. At the other end of the floor, they relentlessly apply intense, in-your-face defense.
As intermission approaches and the Blue Wave retreat on defense, Marian makes eye contact with Staubi. The senior captain knows what's coming. Defensively, Darien is about to make a huge change. The coach gives his signal.
"Sometimes he'll make a decision in games where you can't really tell why," Staubi said. "But we trust him and we consider ourselves a family. He's one of us."
Marian tells his team to switch to man-to-man. A more rigorous physical strategy when they're already tired? Yes. The blue and white are not overmatched by their opponents' athleticism on this day and should be able to stay with them.
The move pays off instantly. Darien speeds ahead with a 15-4 run and holds on in the final stages to improve to 10-8 on the season.
If we are to believe the infamous counsel of Don Vito Corleone, that we should keep our enemies closer than our friends, Mike Evans, coach of rival New Canaan, holds Marian awfully high and close.
From Evans' vantage point just up the road, Marian is building a program exactly the right way, and there is little praise to be held back for a coach like that.
"The job Kyle has done at Darien has been extraordinary," Evans said. "Talk about a guy who is doing it for the right reasons. His kids compete hard, play smart and really know the game."
Evans, who aims to build something similar at basketball-challenged New Canaan, lost twice at Darien this year. While his Rams held Staubi and Azuonwu to a combined 24 points in their final meeting, they could not stem their teammates from delivering the knockout blow.
This kind of depth and balance is even better proof of Marian's success than the team's record is. Although the Blue Wave failed to wrap up the year with wins over Westhill and Stamford, it's proved themselves far beyond the four lines of the Darien court.
Former players, coaches and player have all returned regularly to watch the Blue Wave battle with FCIAC foes. Youngsters now step into the gym wishing to be a part of the culture Marian has grown. Opposing coaches no longer enter knowing the game will be a walk in the park.
On Monday night, the Blue Wave will travel to No. 6 Guilford for the first round of the state tournament. Should they spring an upset, they will take on the winner of No. 10 Avon and No. 23 Bulkley. Yet for however long the basketball plays on this season, the game of life will continue to carry on.
Staubi, Azuonwu, Phillips and others will graduate in June.
Marian will be getting married in early August.
The 2014-15 school year will follow, and things shall start all over again.
Yet the lasting mark that Marian has forged in the record books will never be erased, no matter how much time passes by.
"I hope that I've set a bar," Marian said. "A bar that's attainable for the next guy, whoever that is. I hope no one ever has to work as hard as I did to get the program to where it's at."
A bar today. Perhaps tomorrow, a banner.