Ridgefield and Darien set to clash for Class LL Championship

Way back on Oct. 15, Ridgefield was dealt what could have been a crippling blow in a 38-33 loss at Trinity Catholic, the Tigers’ second setback of the season.

And in a sport where two defeats can keep you out of the playoffs (ask the Tigers from a year ago), it would have been hard to predict a Ridgefield vs. Darien Class LL title game.

Yet, here we are. No. 7-seeded Ridgefield will indeed tangle with top-seeded Darien for the Class LL State Championship on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at West Haven High School.

“We definitely have a lot of perseverance,” Ridgefield quarterback Drew Fowler said. “You’ve seen that in the last two games. Coming back from behind in playoff games speaks a lot. We knew we had some talent when we were sophomores, but it was tough because we didn’t have a lot of seniors that year. We had to grow up fast.”

A true Connecticut powerhouse if ever there was one, Darien always seemed to have the inside track to the title game.

That’s not to take anything away from the top-seeded Blue Wave, which played a tough schedule and defeated the likes of St. Joseph, Greenwich (twice), Staples and New Canaan to keep its perfect season intact.

“I think the fact that we’ve been here before it kind of just feels like last year,” Darien defensive end Quinn Fay said. “Everyone’s hyper-focused and everyone’s super excited for Saturday. Not much changes. Everyone’s just ready to go.”

With Fowler barking out the signals and completing 112 of 175 passes for 1,738 yards, 22 touchdowns and five interceptions, the Tigers went on a late-season rampage after a nearly miraculous comeback against the Crusaders fell just short.

“(The passing game) is pretty efficient,” Ridgefield coach Kevin Callahan said. “What happened against Shelton was not necessarily that we wanted to take the passing attack and turn the volume up on it; it was the fact Shelton did a great job of stopping our running attack, so we kind of had to rely on that.”

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LOCATION, TIME: West Haven High School, Saturday, 2:30 p.m.

PLAYER TO WATCH, RIDGEFIELD: Drew Fowler, quarterback (Sr., 5-foot-9, 175 pounds) A consistent performer all season, Fowler took it to a whole new level against a tough Shelton defense, firing six touchdown strikes while completing 26 of 41 passes for 344 yards. The senior signal-caller will need to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers and must stay cool in the face of Darien's torrid pass rush, which has racked up 37 sacks this season.

PLAYER TO WATCH, DARIEN: Finlay Collins, running back/linebacker (Sr., 6-foot-2, 195 pounds): Due in some part to an injury to fellow running back Mitch Pryor, Collins' workload has steadily increased over the past month, and he's responded by rushing for more than 100 yards in four consecutive games. He's also racked up a team-high 85 tackles and five sacks on defense and will play a huge role in trying to slow Ridgefield's potent attack.

HOW RIDGEFIELD GOT HERE: Ridgefield's foray through the Class LL playoffs has been a pulse-pounding rollercoaster ride, as the Tigers have completed two dramatic comebacks to make it to the finale. Ridgefield escaped a 14-point hole to defeat West Haven 28-21 in the quarters and erased deficits of 21-3 and 41-31 with five minutes left to shock Shelton,44-41.

HOW DARIEN GOT HERE: Darien has had its way in the state tournament, defeating quarterfinal opponent Greenwich and semifinal foe Southington by a combined score of 67-10 to make it this far.

QUOTEABLE, RIDGEFIELD: "We really haven't had a chance to sit down and say 'this is what we're going to exploit. This is what we're going to take advantage of,'" Ridgefield coach Kevin Callahan said. "We haven't been able to say that with Darien. It's going to be a test of fortitude because we're not going to be able to say that we can dominate this or that part of the game. At this point, I don't think there's any weak point on their team, so it's just going to be a test of will."

QUOTEABLE, DARIEN: "(Ridgefield) saw what New Canaan was able to do in the fourth quarter and in the end that was a good lesson for our kids," Darien coach Rob Trifone said. "It doesn't matter if you're up by 100 points. When you're against a very good team, you've got to keep the pedal to the metal."

STORYLINE: Undefeated for two years running, Darien goes for its second consecutive Class LL state championship. Ridgefield, which won just two games in 2014, looks to complete its rapid turnaround with a win in the title game.

Ridgefield closed the regular season with five consecutive wins, then rallied out of a pair of sizable deficits against West Haven and Shelton in the postseason.

The Tigers’ potent attack features X-factor Shane Palmer (1,700 yards of total offense) and receiver Chris Longo, who has racked up a team-high 73 receptions for a team-high 1,047 and seven touchdowns.

Getting rid of the ball quickly and decisively will be as important as ever for Fowler, who must contend with Darien’s dominant pass-rushing duo of Fay and Cord Fox, who have 12 and 10 sacks, respectively.

“They don’t make any mistakes,” Fowler said. “We really can’t shoot ourselves in the foot or else we’re going to be in some trouble. We’ve got to come out and execute our game plan flawlessly.”

“They have some of the best receivers in the state and we know that,” Fox said. “And their quarterback is very good, so the faster the d-line can get there, I think it’s going to help out our secondary a lot.”

Featuring an unrelenting aerial attack led by senior quarterback Brian Peters (168-for-273, 2,776 yards, 31 TD, 8 INT), the Blue Wave easily dispatched most opponents, as 10 of its dozen victories were by 25 or more points.

Peters, a first-year starter, has quite the supporting cast, as five receivers (Tim Herget, Max Grant, Nick Green, Finlay Collins and Spencer Jarecke) have a minimum of 26 receptions, 377 yards and two touchdowns.

But Darien’s offense is anything but one-dimensional, as running backs Finlay Collins and Mitchell Pryor have each taken advantage of the extra room to run in Darien’s spread offense.

Pryor will be making his return this week after carrying the ball just once in the quarterfinal and missing the semifinal due to an injury, but Darien has fed Collins in the meantime and he has responded favorably to the increased workload.

“What we’ve come to the conclusion to is that Finlay is the better runner,” Darien coach Rob Trifone said. “Mitchell is talented, but Finlay gives you a little more dynamic with catching the ball and things like that. He’s an incredible young man that has developed into an incredible football player.”

It’s a balanced offense if ever there was one, as Darien has attempted 321 passes while running the ball 318 times.

“This year we’ve had a pretty balanced attack,” Collins said. “If we can get both of those going I think it should be a good day. Brian has been doing a great job all year, and the o-line has been doing a great job protecting him and opening holes in the run game.”

Darien is well aware of Ridgefield’s comeback history, so going full bore for four quarters has been even more of a focal point than usual for the Blue Wave.

“I think the second half of the New Canaan game is definitely factoring in to how we prepare this week,” Fox said. “We’ve been focusing on going strong all four quarters and just completing the game.”

Ridgefield and Darien haven’t played each other since 2014 when the Blue Wave claimed a 50-23 win.

“Since we were freshmen we always said senior year we’re going to the state championship and we’re going to win it,” Ridgefield strong safety Tommy MacMannis said. “It’s kind of surreal thinking that we’re here now. We’ve been working for this week all our lives basically since second grade.”

Darien is looking to put the finishing touches on what would be its second straight perfect season.

“Not only do you don’t see that every day, you don’t see that every day in this league,” Trifone said. “Look at the FCIAC teams this year. It would be very special and these kids know that. It would be a tremendous accomplishment for this group of young men.”

jchik@newstimes.com; Twitter: @jchik17