Column: Rams, fellow state football champs start over in 2014
On the first day of strength and conditioning camp, New Canaan's Lou Marinelli swapped his headset and clipboard for a crystal ball.
"Darien should be the team to beat this year," the longtime coach proclaimed on Monday. "They've got everybody back. If you had to pick a team that could come out of the FCIAC and compete for the state, I think Darien could be the No. 1 team, closely followed by Greenwich."
What about the Rams, the defending FCIAC and Class L champions? Shouldn't they be on that pedestal?
"Darien's definitely the favorite," said senior Alex LaPolice, who is competing to fill the Rams' opening at quarterback. "They've got a lot of guys back. Greenwich is pretty steady, too. I think that's been the top-two talk of the FCIAC and the state.
"We're just going to put our head down and go about our business."
There you go, Darien. All the pressure's on you.
Well, maybe not all the pressure is on the Blue Wave. Lofty expectations revolve around St. Joseph and Ansonia as well. Both teams coasted to state titles last fall, and both have traditionally reloaded their rosters on the fly.
St. Joseph pulled a page out of an Arena League playbook last year for the Class M playoffs and erupted for 200 points in three games. The Cadets are one of the many contenders with a new quarterback, but they don't plan on falling far. Just ask star tailback Mufasha Abdul Basir.
"No one better than St. Joe's. In all caps, say that. Exclamation point," he said.
We'll refrain, as the regular season's still over two weeks away. Proclamations don't mean much, especially in the preseason, but the Cadets have to like the players that they have back.
"We're definitely not as experienced as last year, but we're not real far behind," coach Joe Della Vecchia said. "The offensive line, they've been running this system since they've been there."
Wide receiver Lars Pedersen is familiar with the system after hauling in 60 passes for 1,059 yards and 16 touchdowns from Jordan Vazzano last year. Vazzano graduated after three years under center, but Pedersen insists that the passing game's getting up to speed thanks to a busy offseason.
"We were throwing in January," said Pedersen, who will catch passes this season from junior Kevin Trefz. "Luckily there wasn't a lot of snow this winter. We've been working ever since then."
Ansonia has even bigger shoes to fill after rolling to its third straight state title. Arkeel Newsome is now calling UConn home after cementing himself as the state's all-time leading rusher with 10,672 career yards.
Just don't expect Newsome's departure to shake the defending Class S champ's expectations.
"There's a lot of guys you've got to replace," coach Tom Brockett said, "but that's what Ansonia football's been built around -- kids stepping up when it's their time."
Newsome stepped up to rush for 3,763 yards and 58 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2011, a year after Montrell Dobbs' 3,445-yard, 40-touchdown campaign. Now it's Tajik Bagley's turn to carry on the tradition.
It would be unfair to expect Bagley -- 716 yards rushing, 12 touchdowns as a sophomore -- to come anywhere close to the numbers of past Ansonia greats, but it would also be unfair to discount his abilities.
"Newsome was a great running back, but Ansonia is Ansonia," Oxford coach Joe Stochmal said. "They will always have a great running back or two."
Oxford's first Naugatuck Valley League game will be against Ansonia on Sept. 11. The Wolverines, of course, will also have to contain quarterback Jai'Quan McKnight, who's as dangerous a runner as is he a passer.
McKnight's prepared to match the hype, too, saying, "I think I pretty much have to show the state that I'm everything that coach Brockett talks to me about -- a great runner, a great passer, and I could also lead the team to another state championship."
The Chargers have won an unprecedented 19 state titles. Even a Newsome-less Ansonia squad will be a favorite to win another.
New Canaan will be in contention as well, albeit against stiffer competition in Class L. The loss of senior running back Frank Cognetta -- out until midseason with a broken foot -- and an inexperienced starter at quarterback will make the road more daunting.
"Next man up, whoever it is," Marinelli said, referring to the Rams' instability at running back. "We've got 90 kids in grades 10, 11 and 12. We always let it ride and see where we end up."
This early, that's all anyone can do, whether they're favorites or not.