— Al Carbone (@SCCcommissioner) December 9, 2012
There was poignant moment as Hand and Hillhouse football players exchanged places on the grand stage of Rentschler Field Saturday evening.
Hillhouse had just defeated Berlin 34-12 and was slowly making its way off the field. Hand’s players, meanwhile, had just began their pregame stretching before taking on Windsor in the Class L title game.
As the Hand players in their sparkling clean jerseys ran past, the bruised, muddied and deliriously happy Hillhouse players went out of their ways to wish the Tigers well against Windsor.
“Go get ‘em, boys,” they yelled, arms extended. “Bring another one home.”
Just a few months ago, these two teams were beating the pulp out of each other at Bowen Field.
Now, they were BFFs.
The SCC family.
While they battle and squabble beneath the Southern Connecticut Conference roof, when the siblings venture outside of the league, its a different attitude. When it comes to state championship time, nobody screws with the family.
And who would now?
Nobody, that’s who.
This is going to rankle those of you in Fairfield County, but this is the case. We advise you to stop reading now if it upsets you.
The SCC cemented itself as the SEC of Connecticut High School Football Saturday, winning three state championships and — in all probability — the No. 1 ranking for the fourth-consecutive season.
You’ve probably seen it everywhere: At games, in articles, on blogs, on Twitter. SCC players, coaches, parents and fans are all bound to bring it up at some point or another. They’ll let you know it every chance they get.
S-C-C! S-C-C! S-C-C!
And now get ready to hear it over and over again for another year.
“We’re the best league in the state.”
It was funny at first, but now it’s serious. For three years running now, the SCC has dominated the same as college’s SEC dominates. With defense, a powerful running game, and great coaching.
His kids in tow, ‘The Commish,’ Al Carbone spent three quarters of state championship week at Rentschler Field presiding proudly like a father over his bigger children’s report cards.
A former SID at Trinity College and now ‘government relations’ manager (Read: PR) at United Illuminating, Carbone is big on self-promotion and public perception. He is easily the most visible league leader in the state.
And with every state championship plaque an SCC team raised, Carbone held up a virtual scoreboard on Twitter in hopes of putting his league’s dominance in perspective.
Carbone doesn’t need to do any lobbying. The SCC doesn’t need to explain itself. No one comes close to its recent pedigree: The CIAC has awarded 12 state championships over the last three seasons, the SCC has won seven of them.
As the clock wound down on his team’s 48-14 pasting of Norwich Free Academy, Xavier defensive coordinator Andy Guyon summed it up thusly:
#cthsfb Xavier D-coordinator Andy Guyon: “Know what SCC stands for? ‘State Champions Conference.’
— Sean Patrick Bowley (@SPBowley) December 8, 2012
Hillhouse and Hand had yet to play.
But why? And how is this league so dominant?
It was asked many times this weekend, and the league’s 2012 championship coaches, Hand’s Steve Filippone, Tom Dyer and Sean Marinan, explained it in different ways every time. Sometimes they offered explanations without anyone asking.
The crux was this: The SCC has great programs, strong programs, physical teams with longstanding traditions. The league’s alignment is construed in a way that the strongest teams rarely, if ever, duck each other. If you reach the state playoffs, you’ve earned it by playing the toughest teams in the league almost every week.
“I call it the gauntlet,” Hillhouse coach Tom Dyer said. “Our league prepares us, week in, week out, to play in games like this.”
Excellence begets excellence.
“We have a lot of programs with tradition, everybody’s had their day in sun. Everybody’s had an opportunity to be in a place like this on a night like this. And that spurs us on to try to do a little bit better,” Filippone said. “In our league, and maybe many other leagues, I know I have to prepare our team very well because the guy across the field is going to do a heckuva job of getting his team ready.
“So we compete every week and don’t get a week off.”
Well, how does that explain Hillhouse? They’re in the “small” SCC Division II side of the bracket. They don’t matchup with the big boys consistently, right?
Embedded in the league’s structure is two ‘crossover’ weeks, when the sides match up against each other. Call it ‘relief’ for the bigger schools and call it unfair for the smaller ones, if you will. Most times, it is. Division II teams rarely win crossovers. It’s kind of a running joke that there are built-in losses for the Forans, Hillhouses and North Havens of the league.
And yes, whenever North Haven, Hillhouse or whomever from Division II reaches the state playoffs, it’s always with one or two losses. This year a pretty strong North Haven squad was left out of the state playoffs.
North Haven’s sin? Losing to three state champions: Xavier, Hand and Hillhouse. Had North Haven beaten Hillhouse in Week 5, the Class M champions would have been left out of the playoff field, North Haven would have had to beat Hand to win in Class L.
It’s tough. It’s unforgiving and maybe even a bit unfair. But in the long run, the SCC’s scheduling is a weekly litmus test to see just how well your team stacks up and just how good they must be to become a state champion. There are no paper champions here.
“We just went through a gauntlet of a season,” Hand’s outstanding defensive lineman Peter Gerson said. “I don’t think there was one bad team. That’s what happens when you play in the SCC.”
And it has been that extra edge that has spurred it on in the state playoffs. The SCC went 3-1 against the FCIAC in the state playoffs, knocking more than half of that league of of title contention before the semifinals.
Staples did hammer West Haven, 42-20. But then the Wreckers followed by losing to NFA 30-28, a team Xavier beat by 34 points in the state final.
When an SCC team plays outside of the league, it’s like dropping that extra bat as you step out from the on-deck circle. Everything seems so much easier when SCC teams dig into the batter’s box against the rest of the state.
“The SCC just plays a different brand of football,” Gerson continued. “I know people go, oh the SCC, there are other leagues, there’s the eff-cee-eye-ay-cee, and there’s this, there’s that… I’ve played teams in other leagues and the SCC is just a different brand. It’s a fire, you hit every play, you don’t give up and that puts a wear on you. It was a grind to get through.”
So what does Fairfield County and the rest of the state have to do to keep up? The bar has been set enormously high. New Haven County is boss (we’ll add Class S champion Ansonia into that discussion, as well.). It stings, no doubt. Nobody — and we mean nobody — from the FCIAC and SWC can say they get thrown into the fire weekly like the teams in the SCC. While the Masuks, New Canaans, Greenwichs and Staples of the world have been and remain strong football programs capable of beating anyone. Over the long haul, the FCIAC has lost more often than win against the battle-tested SCC.
Maybe these recent realignments are the answer? The SWC recently realigned into three divisions by size. So the largest schools won’t miss each other in the future. (Though, honestly, there are fewer powerhouses in the SWC.)
The FCIAC recently divvied up its teams by size, but not as much by strength. And it costs them. Who did New Canaan, Staples or Greenwich play in the regular season? They didn’t play each other regularly, that’s for sure. The way the league has scheduled of late, all of the best programs have missed each other, give or take.
That won’t be the case over the next two years. But what’s from preventing weak scheduling from happening again?
Then again, these things tend to go in cycles. It wasn’t that long ago that the FCIAC and SWC were puffing out their chests after winning a majority of titles in 2006 and 2007. Before that, the CCC reigned with teams like New Britain and Southington and Bloomfield. The ECC, too, did well with Fitch, Ledyard and New London. In the smaller divisions, the NVL pretty much has always ruled thanks mostly to Ansonia, Woodland and Holy Cross.
But this is a brand-new world of Connecticut high school football. There are no longer six watered-down champions. There are now four, legit ones. You have to beat three legit teams to take home a plaque. And to win in this world, you have to work, work and work, then you have to be tested every week, and you have to play flawless and — most of all — you have to survive.
The SCC has the blueprint, not to just to survive, but thrive.
Again, things go in cycles, both Hand and Xavier lose a lot heading into 2013, as does Hillhouse. So maybe this run of excellence hath reached its zenith.
Maybe. But at this moment, it’s hard to envision the league taking a step back in the immediate future.
The serious programs in the FCIAC and SWC will have all offseason to stew over this. Thankfully, redemption, in a smaller form for the FCIAC, is on the way. The league has agreed to play the SCC in 16 crossover games. Dubbed ‘The SCC-FCIAC Challenge’ on this space a year ago, we’ll get Xavier-Staples, Greenwich-West Haven, New Canaan-Hand, Darien-Hillhouse, etc. in a kick-ass, kickoff to 2013 and 2014.
So, run off into the wilderness of Russia FCIAC. Pull sleds, carry logs up mountains, run through snow. Scream ‘SCC!!!!!!’ from the rooftops of the world. Do whatever it is you have to do to get ready next year. You’re getting lapped in the Connecticut high school football championship scene.