Is it time for prep and CIAC foot­ball pro­grams to meet?

The News-Times - - SPORTS - jeff.ja­[email protected] hearst­medi­act. com; @jef­f­ja­cobs123

John Marinelli was get­ting des­per­ate. He needed a game to fill the sched­ule in 2017 and 2018 for his Green­wich High foot­ball team. Be­cause of the FCIAC sched­ule, the pow­er­house Car­di­nals had a bye week and nobody around the state wanted to say hello to a matchup.

Marinelli used high school ser­vices in search of pos­si­ble op­po­nents. One was St. John Bosco near Los An­ge­les. An­other was West Mon­roe (La.). An­other was a team in Washington D.C., an­other in Washington, an­other in Colorado … you get the picture. Fi­nally, Marinelli got lucky. Xavier of Mid­dle­town had an open­ing. Andy Guyon has a good re­la­tion­ship with Marinelli and he was will­ing to play Green­wich both years. The sched­ule had to be jug­gled and the game was squeezed in be­fore Thanks­giv­ing.

“There were other teams in the state with byes the same week we did those years that flatout said no,” Marinelli said. “It’s re­ally hard for us to fill games. And prep schools are dy­ing for games.”

That’s why Marinelli, the coach of the Class LL state cham­pion and undis­puted No. 1 team in the state last sea­son, wants to play prep school teams.

He has a man on the other side of the fence who fiercely and openly agrees with him. Joe Linta, coach of Ham­den Hall Coun­try Day and an NFL player agent, wants to play CIAC schools.

“I’d love to play those schools,” Marinelli said. “I’m all for it. No one wants to play us. It’s not just us. I think it’s big­ger public schools like New Canaan and Darien and pri­vate schools like St. Joe’s (Trum­bull) that are strug­gling to get games.

“It’s easy for me to say af­ter 13-0 (last sea­son), but at 4-5 my first year I said I’ll play any­body any­where. I want to give my kids the max­i­mum games al­lowed un­der

CIAC rules. So they’ll have film for college and can play the sport they love. Coaches that don’t fill their sched­ule, I have a prob­lem with. It’s one sport you can’t play af­ter your high school and college days. Fill my sched­ule. If we are left out of the state play­offs that year be­cause of it, well, it wasn’t meant to be.”

Some prep schools like Brunswick and Ham­den Hall do not have post­grad­u­ate play­ers, but stu­dents can re­clas­sify to gain a fifth year of high school. Un­der CIAC rules, bar­ring an ex­ten­u­at­ing cir­cum­stance, a four-year clock starts when a stu­dent en­ters as a fresh­man. So CIAC teams can play them, but, im­por­tantly, no points can be gained to­ward the state play­offs.

“Re­ally, what’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween Notre Dame, Xavier and Ham­den Hall other than they are in the CIAC and we’re not?” Linta said. “They go out and take play­ers just like we’re ac­cused of.

“Here’s the thing that ev­ery­body’s on us about, but the ex­tra point is ev­ery­body who comes in and re­clas­si­fies is also el­i­gi­ble per CIAC rules age-wise. We’re not tak­ing guys who are grad­u­at­ing at 19 and 20. In fact, our rules are more re­stric­tive than the CIAC.”

Other prep schools like Choate-Walling­ford and Suffield Academy at­tract top play­ers and use post­grad­u­ate play­ers. The strength of prep school teams varies markedly. Big public schools can have su­pe­rior num­bers, im­por­tant in foot­ball. The prep school teams can have su­pe­rior top-end tal­ent.

“I’m will­ing to play the Choates and Suffields of the world,” Marinelli said. “We’re a mem­ber of the CIAC. We want our state cham­pi­onship. The play­offs are spe­cial the way they are. I don’t want them in the CIAC, it’s an un­fair ad­van­tage they can re­cruit and have PGs. But I’d love to play a prep school and have them count to­ward the CIAC state play­off sys­tem.”

Choate, Marinelli said, would be con­sid­ered an LL school and would bring points for a win and points for all the wins they have that year. At the end of the reg­u­lar sea­son, points can be ex­tremely tight for get­ting into the play­offs and for home-field seed­ing. So when a team plays only nine games, even los­ing points from an op­po­nent who has fewer wins be­cause of that can make a dif­fer­ence.

“Yeah, it’s be­cause of the play­off points,” Linta said. “And also some teams just don’t want to play. I think the CIAC should be in a sit­u­a­tion where they are for­giv­ing. In­stead of mak­ing a team travel to Rhode Is­land two hours and (have it count to­ward the play­offs), they can travel 10 min­utes and play us.

“The CIAC’s excuse, (they) say, ‘Well, don’t know what kind of team they have.’ Ob­vi­ously, we won a New England cham­pi­onship and we have kids go­ing to play in college. Any­body who knows any­thing about foot­ball in Con­necti­cut knows the qual­ity of our team. My team two years ago, we were 11-0. I would have played any team in the state and ex­pected to beat them.”

Marinelli said if he was stuck with nine games he’d be will­ing to play a prep school not counting to­ward the state play­offs.

“But that’s shady,” Marinelli said. “If I get a kid hurt for a game that doesn’t count for any­thing be­yond brag­ging rights, what are we re­ally play­ing it for? If we were able to come to an agree­ment with the NEPSAC that it could count to­ward their sys­tem, too, I’d love it.

“Look, I can ap­pre­ci­ate other peo­ple’s sit­u­a­tions in the CIAC. We are one of the few pro­grams where our num­bers have grown over the years. I’m not knock­ing any­body for that. It’s the way of the world (with de­clin­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion). Also, not many coaches want to sched­ule games against re­ally good teams. They’d rather play against one they know they’re equal to or bet­ter than. But I’m like my dad (New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli). Let’s go play any­time, any­where for the ex­pe­ri­ence — win, lose, or draw. See what we got. If we lose, it’s a teach­ing mo­ment. If we win, it’s a great story.”

The Con­necti­cut High School Foot­ball Sched­ul­ing Al­liance, an agree­ment be­tween com­mis­sion­ers from leagues across the state to produce eq­ui­table sched­ules, added the CCC and FCIAC for 2019. The SCC, SWC and ECC al­ready were in­volved. There will be 99 cross­over games this sea­son, an in­crease of 18 over 2018.

“We were left out of the Al­liance, I don’t know why,” Marinelli said. “We would have loved an Al­liance game. I think the Al­liance is start­ing to solve some of the is­sues, but even there you hear grum­blings of coaches try­ing to al­ter sched­ules so they can get wins.”

You won­der why a knowl­edge­able com­mit­tee couldn’t be put to­gether to ex­am­ine cer­tain pro­posed matchups be­tween well-matched prep and CIAC teams to ap­prove them for counting to­ward the play­offs. Surely, there wouldn’t be that many such games.

Asked if there had been much talk­ing among school ad­min­is­tra­tors and coaches on this sub­ject within the CIAC, Marinelli said, “I heard it got shot down quickly.”

The big­gest rea­son is — and let’s be hon­est — CIAC coaches hate the way prep schools have taken so many star play­ers in re­cent years. And those num­bers are grow­ing. There’s a war go­ing on with the fa­mil­iar whis­pers … Prep schools are a busi­ness and they’ll bilk money from par­ents with­out any as­sur­ance that Ju­nior will get a schol­ar­ship or a good college place­ment … Con­versely, if the CIAC schools and coaches were do­ing a good job ed­u­cat­ing their kids, hon­ing ath­letic skills and pro­mot­ing their kids, there wouldn’t be a need for them to go to prep schools.

In the end, more of our state kids are go­ing to prep schools, and with­out a larger com­mu­nity sur­round­ing them, they play in front of small crowds.

“But think about it,” Marinelli said. “How many peo­ple would have loved to see Choate ver­sus Green­wich or Hand last year? Green­wich and Brunswick, we’d get 20,000 for that game. It would be an amaz­ing thing for the sport in Con­necti­cut and Green­wich.”

Chris­tian Abra­ham / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

NFL prospect and Ham­den Hall grad T.J. Linta poses with his dad Joe at the school’s foot­ball field in Ham­den on Thursday. Joe is a pro­fes­sional sports agent and the foot­ball coach at Ham­den Hall.

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