New Canaan quarterback Matt Milano
And then there were eight. Or two. Eight teams still alive for Saturday’s four state championship games, two — Staples and New Canaan — representatives from the FCIAC.
In comparing this season to others, like an elusive runner it is difficult to get a grasp on a firm analysis. It certainly wasn’t the best season in recent memory, yet far from the worst. The top of the pack took a step back, the middle of the pack a step forward, yet with a number of teases there was just one seismic hit to the elite programs: Stamford’s win over New Canaan.
Still, the league placed four teams in the state playoffs and, though both representatives come in as underdogs, has a chance at producing a pair of state champions.
Overall, the season left one again longing for a better way to produce a playoff pool outside of a point system, where teams end up being victims to uneven schedules that sometimes leave some of the best ones at home.
Having an uneven 19 members and the priority placed on Thanksgiving games will continue to keep the FCIAC from having a fully satisfactory way of determining the teams that qualify for the championship game. It still would be possible to have two divisions, have all intra-city and -town schools play one another and produce a format where teams play 60-70 percent of an equal schedule to crown division champions.
It would be an imperfect but improved system, but that is an argument for another day.
Let’s focus on what was, rather than on what could be.
Most valuable player
1. Matt Milano, New Canaan. The first two-year starting quarterback at the school since Curtis Casali, the soft-spoken Milano picked up where he left off a year ago, at times putting the team on his shoulders for heroic comebacks, most prominently against Brien McMahon. Milano rewrote the school record book for single-season and career records, some that stood for four decades. Fairly or not to Stamford, people will always wonder if the Rams might still be undefeated if Milano was not sidelined by a migraine headache in the first quarter against the Black Knights. On a purely personal note, I have covered 22 of the 25 games Milano has started. He is a much better person than he is a player.
2. Delshawn Wilson, Norwalk. Converted to quarterback, Wilson was one of the main reasons the Bears were the feel-good story of the season, earning a state playoff berth and winning a quarterfinal game in coach Sean Ireland’s first season. Wilson threw for 1,471 yards and 14 touchdowns, ran for 563 yards and five touchdowns, and had six interceptions. That’s pretty valuable.
3. Shane Nastahowski, Greenwich. The area’s best two-way player, Nastahowski led the Cardinals in rushing, scoring and tackles. He led Greenwich to the brink of an FCIAC title, and it was unfortunate that a paucity of bonus points kept him — and the rest of the Cardinals — home for the Class LL playoffs.
Norwalk coach Sean Ireland
Coach of the Year
1. Sean Ireland, Norwalk. No one, and I mean NO ONE, expected the Bears to have the kind of season they did. Sure, the players will talk about the preseason optimism, and it was all legitimate. But most people were looking at Norwalk as a five to seven win team. Ireland showed calm leadership throughout his rookie season, kept his team together after a loss to New Canaan and showed a roster of good athletes the way to win.
2. Marce Petroccio, Staples. The team of the future arrived a year early. Petroccio did a sensational job molding a group that relied on a number of non-seniors in important spots. When you have a team that keeps coming back from second-half deficits — or in the FCIAC championship win over Greenwich, coming from two scores down in the last 10 minutes — you look to the top. I remember the pre-Petroccio era, when people said Westport was a soccer town and you couldn’t win in football (I know, I’m a Staples graduate and played soccer). Petroccio has disproved that theory — and not at the expense of the soccer program.
3A. Bryan Hocter, Stamford. After starting 1-2 the temptation was to say “Same old Black Knights.” Instead, in just his second season, Hocter led Stamford to six straight wins, including the seismic blow to New Canaan. It was the most team wins since 1995 and best winning percentage since 1978.
3B. Lou Marinelli, New Canaan. When a program has long-term success, it becomes expected and important ingredients get overlooked. Marinelli has his fingerprint on every aspect of the Rams. Six straight state championship appearances says it all.
Game of the Year
1. Staples 31, Greenwich 27. The Wreckers Houdini-like escape lifts them to the FCIAC title and denies the Cardinals a postseason game.
2. Stamford 36, New Canaan 29. The one win all season for the middle class.
3. New Canaan 36, Brien McMahon 33. The game that typified this season, with an underdog getting to the brink before succumbing to the master.
The Fab 5
1. Staples (11-0). Can the Wreckers shock the entire state against Xavier?
2. New Canaan (11-1). Can the Rams upset Hand and make it five titles in six years?
3. Norwalk (9-2). The bar has been set pretty high for the Bears in Ireland II.
4. Greenwich (8-2). There were a number of schools in Class LL that breathed a big sigh of relief when the Cardinals lost to Staples.
5. Ridgefield (8-3). In between an opening game loss to Greenwich and a Class LL quarterfinal loss to Staples, a more than respectable 8-1 run by the Tigers.
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