The stakes are high as Staples and Darien look to stay on title path
An FCIAC season that has been replete with games more of curiosity than substance finally produces a true heavyweight battle Saturday morning.
In a showdown likely to be looked back upon as the most critical of the regular season, Staples will host Darien at 10:30 a.m. The winner will be on a fast track to one berth in the conference championship. The loser will turn its focus on qualifying for the CIAC Tournament.
Thus, both coaches are looking at the first meeting between the teams in three years with an even greater sense of urgency.
"Almost every game now is in a sense a playoff game," Staples coach Marce Petroccio said. "The stakes are high. We are happy to have an opportunity to play in a game like this."
Staples and Darien enter the weekend as two of four remaining teams unbeaten in league play -- along with New Canaan and Greenwich -- and ranked second and third, respectively, behind the Rams in the conference point standings.
Staples (5-0), which last won the FCIAC title in 2009, has allowed a league-low 64 points.
"Early in the year, there were times we struggled, but the kids have kept working and working and bought in to what we are doing," Petroccio said. "We've always put a premium on defense here."
The Wreckers' ground game has been equally dominant. They are averaging 204 yards a game and nearly 8 yards per carry behind one of the swiftest backfields in the state, led by Joey Zelkowitz's team-high 594 yards.
"We are very fortunate we have skill kids who can run," Petroccio said. "We are trying to find a ways to get everyone the ball so it is hard to get a read on us. One thing you can't coach is speed."
The Blue Wave, the reigning champion, has flourished everywhere but in the court of public opinion the past two seasons. Last fall most pointed to an easy schedule as a template for success. This year, after losing almost the entire starting lineup to graduation, Darien has not yet been mentioned with the same type of adoration as the other contenders.
Saturday presents the chance to alter the tone of the discussion.
"I don't pay too much attention to it but I get it more from the kids," Darien coach Rob Trifone said. "I think they feel people know they are a good team, but not with the same status as a Staples, New Canaan and even perhaps a Greenwich. You have to earn that status."
Trifone said he has tapped into that mindset during what has been a good week of practice.
"They are looking forward to the challenge," Trifone said. "They are very businesslike. They like the idea that they may not be ranked as high as Staples in some people's minds."
Last Saturday's 35-34 win over Wilton is a perfect example of the glass half-full or half-empty nature that frames the perception of the Blue Wave. Trifone said it was a game his team could have put away in the third quarter, yet it allowed the Warriors to drive for a tying touchdown in the final seconds of regulation. The outcome was decided by a missed extra point by Wilton in the second overtime.
"Wilton is a good team," Trifone said. "Our downfall this year is even though it hasn't shown up in the win column, we still make too many mistakes. Sometimes it shows up in penalties, sometimes it shows up in turnovers, sometimes it is not making a play on third down. The only way we are going to beat a Staples is if we match their ability not to make mistakes."
Darien has one of the league's most balanced offenses, averaging 165 yards on the ground and 160 in the air. Peter Gesualdi is the team leader rushing (319) and receiving (231) yards. The Blue Wave has solid in all areas.
"I think we've got to find a way to slow their running game," Petroccio said, "and we need to move the chains."
Dave Ruden can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaveRuden