High School Football: The FCIAC's fearsome foursome
Bruce Cunningham is part of a large football coaching fraternity in the FCIAC. Though he would never come out and say it to his players, the leader of the Wilton High School program knows he will start each season with no chance of winning a conference title.
"I'll be honest, we are always going to try and win as many games as possible, but to say each year that our season will be a disappointment if we don't win a championship ... we are not there yet," said Cunningham, who has coached in the league since 1985. "We are trying to get there."
So are many of Cunningham's colleagues, but it has proved a futile pursuit. Since 1996, except for one year, only four schools -- Greenwich, Staples, New Canaan and Darien -- have won the FCIAC title. During that time, the four schools have occupied 24 of the 32 spots in the final. Eleven of the conference's 19 members have watched the games from the stands.
These days, most area players have a better chance of suiting up for the Super Bowl than they do of ever getting the experience of playing in an FCIAC title game.
"I think football has different emphasis at different schools," said New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli, whose team has won three championships and appeared in the final two other times during the last 15 years. "Others are just glad to have a program or happy to have a team. I'm not talking about the coaches, but the administrations. Do you just want to have a program or a good program?"
Rich Albonizio has been on both sides of the fence. Before coming to Greenwich 16 years ago -- and winning six league championships -- Albonizio was the coach at Trinity Catholic, where his teams were consistently near the top of the standings.
Still, while seven wins with the Crusaders got him pats on the back, the same total in Greenwich spur cries for his job.
"People at Trinity might do a better job than other schools that are undefeated," Albonizio said, referring to the impediments on a small private school program. "Some places are more patient. It wasn't that we weren't trying there."
So why have just four schools ruled the FCIAC for so long? There are a number of common factors. Marinelli, Albonizio and Marce Petroccio at Staples have been at their schools for a long time -- Marinelli for 32 years -- and have attracted loyal and knowledgeable coaching staffs. Each school is located in affluent towns that can provide the resources and support staffs that provide teams with an edge.
All four communities have flourishing youth programs that provide their high schools with strong talent pools. Many younger players are taught the same offenses and defenses as the schools they aspire to one day play for.
"We work very closely with the youth programs and I think our guys do a great job," Marinelli said. "They are passionate about football. We offer clinics and run camps for them. Our guys do it for the right reason."
And, as is often the case at the high school level in all sports, excellence is a self-perpetuating commodity.
Thus far only one person in the modern era has been able to quickly transform a have-not into a consistent have, and that was Petroccio. When he came to Staples in 1993, it was known as a "soccer school" because of the strong tradition of the boys soccer team, one of the best in the state. The football team, once a part of Westport's fabric, was in disarray.
"The state of the program when we got here, quite honestly, was pretty bad, and that's an understatement," Petroccio said. "The kids didn't care about football, the school didn't care about football. We made a decision to make kids accountable and responsible for their own actions. Instead of blaming the refs or the weather or anything, they had to look themselves in the mirror and worry about what they could do to get us over the hump."
Petroccio worked from the bottom up, playing carnival barker to get support from the town, building a weight room and laying a foundation for the Wreckers to compete.
Staples went 2-8 that first season -- a win total that equaled or surpassed the previous five years, and 5-5 each of the next two years. In 1997 Petroccio won the first of four FCIAC championships.
"It took a lot of time and a lot of sacrifices by a lot of people," Petroccio said. "Everyone was on the same page. There was one goal: to be as good as we could be."
Asked how he was able to succeed at a sizable task that has proved elusive for other coaches, Petroccio said, "Fortunately we have gotten tremendous support from the community. You can look at it 100 different ways. I can't speak for other coaches and their communities. We're just very fortunate."
So what does the future hold? One week into this new season, the favorites to win the FCIAC title are -- surprise -- Staples, Greenwich, Darien and New Canaan, with the rest of the league outsiders trying to earn membership into an exclusive club.
"It's hard to put your finger on it and I'm not quite sure how it changes," said Cunningham, who was a member of Greenwich's back to back conference championship teams in 1981 and 1982. "I think every coach, no matter where you are coaching, is trying to get to that point. I think it is all part of getting to that right culture. There is a ways to go."
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