Darien drubs Ridgefield, 38-12, in season opener

The National Football League has the the New England Patriots; college football has the Alabama Crimson Tide.

And the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference has Darien.

Each year the Blue Wave graduates a slew of stars and finds new ones to take over. The latest crop was on display Friday night, leading Darien to a 38-12 victory over Ridgefield in the season opener for both teams at Tiger Hollow.

It was the 26th straight triumph for Darien, which last lost to New Canaan in the 2014 state finals.

Friday's highly anticipated contest was a rematch of last year's Class LL finals, which Darien won, 28-7, to defend its state title and complete a second straight unbeaten season.

On Friday night, Ridgefield's good fortune ended with the coin toss. After electing to receive the opening kickoff, Ridgefield was called for a false start. Two plays later quarterback Greg Gatto's pass was intercepted by Darien cornerback Brian Minicus, who returned the ball 11 yards for a touchdown and a quick 6-0 lead.

The ensuing Ridgefield possession ended with a punt, and Darien quarterback Jack Joyce drove the visitors down the field before connecting with wide receiver Maxwell Grant on a 27-yard touchdown pass, extending the Blue Wave's lead to 14-0.

Later in the first quarter, Darien was again driving when Ridgefield cornerback Evan Wein forced a fumble on a third and three play near midfield and teammate Jackson Mitchell returned the ball to Darien’s five-yard line.

Unable to score on its first three plays, Ridgefield decided to go for a touchdown on fourth down, even after a false start pushed the Tigers back to the Darien 11-yard line. Gatto’s short pass to Wein was complete, but Wein was tackled near the eight-yard line.

Darien took over on downs but went three and out. Then came the highlight of the night for Ridgefield: Linebacker Noah Isaacson blocked the punt and Connor Goff collected the ball and ran three yards into the end zone. After missing the extra point, the Tigers trailed 14-6 just minutes into the second quarter.

After a three and out, the Tigers had to punt. The snap sailed over the head of punter Thomas Formus and into the end zone. Formus chased down the ball and was able to run out to the Ridgefield 10-yard line.

The Ridgefield defense prevented Darien from scoring a touchdown, and Mitchell deflected the Blue Wave's field goal attempt, with the Tigers gaining possession at their own three-yard line.

But after stopping Ridgefield, Darien got the ball back and added to its lead. Joyce rolled out to his left and threw a beautiful 14-yard touchdown pass to Grant that just slipped through a Ridgefield defender's fingers. The extra point put the Blue Wave ahead 21-6 at halftime.

Darien began the third quarter with a drive that culminated in Austin Hagander's 25-yard field goal and a 24-6 lead.

Gatto then had a pass deflect off a receiver's hands and into the arms of Minicus, who sprinted 20 yards into the end zone for his second pick-six of the game.

Trailing 31-6, the Ridgefield offense did put together an impressive scoring drive. Gatto hit senior wide receiver Jimmy Kulik several times on the 60-plus yard march that ended with Gatto rolling out to his right and squeezing a one-yard pass to a double-covered Mitchell on an out route in the end zone. The Tigers missed the two-point conversion, leaving their deficit at 31-12.

The final points came late in the fourth quarter, as Darien iced the game on a 25-yard touchdown run. After a botched kickoff recovery by Ridgefield, Darien kept possession and was able to take a knee to end the game.

"Obviously this wasn't how we wanted the game to turn out, but our goal was never to go undefeated this year; the goal is to win a state championship and that's still on the table," said Gatto. "We're gonna grind and keep working on getting better cause it's not about being the best team in week one, it's about being the best team by the end of the year."

"Nothing changes," added Ridgefield senior receiver/strong safety Matt Lombardo. "This loss is going to sting for the next few nights. However, we must always look forward; we must focus on our next game. Right now, we have Stamford on our minds."