Jeff Jacobs: Newtown vs. Darien, the rematch. Is this the game of the year?

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After Newtown had beaten Darien in the 2018 Class LL quarterfinals, a team returning several starters was surprised to be ranked as low as eighth in the initial 2019 GameTimeCT poll.

“There were a few head-scratchers there,” coach Bobby Pattison said.

A copy of the poll found its way affixed to the locker room door.

“It stayed there all season,” Pattison said.

The poll was hanging in place when Newtown stunned Darien on the final play of the 2019 Class LL championship, a 36-yard touchdown pass by Jack Street so dramatic and impactful that it touched fans across America. It came on the seventh anniversary of the Sandy Hook tragedy.

“I’ve only watched the play a couple of times,” said head coach Mike Forget, Darien’s defensive coordinator in Rob Trifone’s final game. “Any time it would come on national television, I’d turn it off.”

Pregame motivation is to be culled any way possible. In advance of Friday night’s rematch, the coaches are careful to praise the other’s team and affix no remarkable meaning to a Week 3 game.

Sports columnists are governed by no such restraint. No. 3 Newtown at No. 1 Darien in a Connecticut Football Alliance game that could prove to be the regular season matchup of the year. Dylan Magazu has emerged as a dynamic quarterback for Newtown. David Evanchick is a defensive force for Darien.

Here’s something for the Blue Wave to chew on. Newtown is 4-0 all-time against Darien. Before the 2018 playoff loss, the Blue Wave had won the Class LL title and finished No. 1 in the GameTimeCT poll three years in a row. They had reached the state finals five years in a row.

Video of the 2019 final play ended up everywhere, including ESPN, and with the Nighthawks appearing at halftime on NBC Sunday Night Football.

“We were on the bus ride back (from Trumbull) after the game,” Pattison said, “and the kids are like, ‘Hey coach! We’ve been viewed like 400,000 times on Barstool.’”

Newtown had one player get considerable minutes and a handful of special teamers in the 2019 game. Darien had Evanchick and Christian Alliegro on the field. There is a new cast of starting players. Fresh faces answering question marks each week is the way Pattison put it.

“This is a new team, a new attitude,” Forget said. “I’m sure the boys think about it. We were there and that stunk for us. Our focus is moving forward. They aren’t focused on what’s happened in the past. To us, it’s Game 3.

“It just happens we are No. 1 in the state and have a target on our back and the No. 3 team is going to come and try to take that away from us.”

That is Newtown’s great motivation. Amid the uncertainty after the COVID year, Darien, the state’s premier team for much of the last decade, was right back at No. 1 again.

“We look at it as motivation, too,” said Forget, who has assumed the duties of offensive coordinator, too. “People thought enough of what we have coming back as a team. We use that in preparation every week.”

When the alliance schedules were made early in 2020, Newtown of the SWC was scheduled to play Southington of the CCC. Darien of the FCIAC was scheduled to play Simsbury of the CCC.

COVID had other plans. So did the CCC.

“When we got back together in January, the CCC had restructured its divisions,” said SCC commissioner Al Carbone, an alliance co-founder. “That meant they had to restructure schedules.

“Our committee looked and said obviously Newtown-Darien is a really good game. Newtown needed a road game. Darien needed a home game. There’s also the back story with the last championship game and all the drama. It made sense. It worked out.”

An executive from each league is represented on the alliance committee. Leagues, not the CIAC, make the regular season schedules.

“When Doug Marchetti (Norwalk AD) mentioned it was a possibility, I said it would be great if it happens,” Darien athletic director Chris Manfredonia said. “We’re excited, absolutely.”

“Schools know going in they’re going to have to play competitive games,” Carbone said. “Filling open dates is also something the alliance is designed for. I can maneuver my league schedule.”

Newtown had a 94-8 record in the decade of 2010-2019. Until the Nighthawks started playing alliance games, however, half their schedule was filled with Class M and S league games. Between 2011 and 2016 Newtown was 59-3 in the regular season and 2-6 in the playoffs. In 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016, perfect regular seasons ended in first-round playoff losses.

In 2018, Newtown beat Cheshire and NFA to complete a perfect regular season and beat Darien before falling to Greenwich in the Class LL semis. A step ahead. In 2019, Newtown won its first state title since beating Windham in Class MM in 1992. The Nighthawks beat Danbury of the FCIAC, Fairfield Prep, West Haven and Shelton of the SCC in alliance games en route to a 13-0 season and Class LL tittle. Carbone jokes Newtown also won the 2019 SCC Division I championship.

“Steve George, a good friend who got me started, really built our program up,” Pattison said. “When I had the opportunity to take over, we continued to do a lot of the same things. We always felt we were on the rise, but couldn’t get over the proverbial hump.

“The 2019 season put an exclaiming point on it. For a while, there were a lot of doubters. ‘They weren’t going to do it. They play too easy of a schedule, etc.’ It felt good to kind of put the naysayers to rest.”

Forget is an alliance supporter. Pattison sees pros and cons.

“Our kids have done a nice job the last couple years and an important thing for them is they gain confidence,” Pattison said. “There definitely is benefit there. The alliance creates a buzz and that’s good.

“At the same time it becomes kind of a grind. We played West Haven in 2019 (which won only two games and didn’t help with playoff bonus points). Yet they were a tough team. We were down at halftime, got nicked up. How much good did we get from playing the game?”

Pattison is among those who want coaches to have more input.

“If I had a say we’d play teams like Ridgefield, similar schools, proximity, checks a lot of the boxes,” he said. “People worry coaches will angle for easier schedules, but teams that haven’t won a game in two years aren’t going to help you. So it’s a double-edged sword. I’d like to play two alliance games a year instead of four. With 60 percent of our games in the conference, it almost feels like we’re an independent at times.”

Without the alliance, premier interconference games like this one also rarely happen. A chance to revisit the miracle pass play? Pure romance. Well, except to Darien.

“The problem is it shouldn’t have been,” Forget said. “There wasn’t anything miracle about it. It was a blown coverage. I can watch Sunday and Monday Night Football and see the same thing with guys paid millions of dollars. It happens.

“It was a great game. It came down to one play.”

The championship was headed to overtime and, suddenly, one team’s dream was crushed.

“You’ve seen the work they put in to get to that point,” Manfredonia said. “To see them on the field after the game, my heart went out to the kids and the coaches. I just felt awful for them. It was Rob’s last game. It was very emotional. I was impressed how well they handled it, how maturely, even day after day when it kept reappearing everywhere you turned.”

Manfredonia lives in Newtown. His daughter Alex, a sophomore and the school’s lacrosse goalie, was a first grader on Dec. 14, 2012. Chris was on his way into Sandy Hook Elementary to help make gingerbread houses when the shooting started. He went around the outside of the building toward his daughter’s class when police, fearing he was a second shooter, handcuffed and briefly detained him.

Even now when asked how he felt as a Newtown resident to see many of its kids rejoicing on Dec. 14, 2019, Manfredonia said, “Newtown played a great game … it’s hard for me to answer that question.”

“It was a tough day, regardless, for a lot of people,” Pattison said. “It was remarkable to win a state championship. To do it on the last play and the significance of the day, it was overwhelming. I could barely sleep. For some kids it had a deeper meaning. Others it was in the back of their mind. Some were playing more emotionally. It was different for everybody.”

Life does not stop for any of us.

There is a big buzz in Darien and in school about Friday night, Manfredonia said.

“We can’t wait,” he said.

“Some people have shown me Darien had the game circled on their calendar, which is great,” Pattison said. “Our kids are excited, too. They’re No. 1. We want be No. 1. It won’t be decided in the newspaper or on social media. It’ll be decided Friday night.”; @jeffjacobs123