Football has always been an integral part of the fabric of New Canaan High School. One year after incorporation of the school in 1927 (New Canaan students had attended Stamford or Norwalk High School up until then), the New Canaan High football team was established under the guidance of head coach and NCHS athletic director Loren J. Keyes. Known back then as the Red and Black or the “Keyesmen” named for their popular coach, New Canaan’s first-ever game was a scoreless tie played on October 19, 1928 against Norwalk High. Though it is hard to imagine today, the football team consisted of just 18 players and their exploits received little, if no mentions in the local newspapers.
1920’s, 30’s – MODEST BEGINNINGS
Also difficult to imagine today is that New Canaan did not have a home field, although they were able to run practices on the small plot of land located directly behond the school, now the headquarters of the New Canaan Police Department. New Canaan also did not have uniform jerseys for its inaugural season–a far cry from the multiple uniform incarnations the Rams sport today.
After dropping its next two contests, New Canaan won its first game on November 2, 1928 with a 22-7 victory over King Prep of Stamford. A week later, on November 9th, New Canaan played its first contest against neighboring Darien. The game was played at Darien’s Ox Ridge Hunt Club and although the Red and Black fell 26-6, the greatest rivalry in Connecticut High School sports was born.
The next season, New Canaan had jerseys, a home field at Mead Park and also a win over Darien, edging their rival 13-12. It started a streak of five consecutive victories in games between the two teams. According to the late historian Don Souden, a last-second 7-0 New Canaan win in 1931 inspired NCHS music director Lawrence Perry to write the school’s fight song, “Onward New Canaan.”
1940’s – GROWTH
New Canaan had moderate success throughout the 1930’s and 40’s, bookending perhaps its best seasons under Keyes with a 6-1-1 record in 1930 and in 1943, going 4-1-2 highlighted by a 6-0 win over Darien. Top players in that era included George Nash, Julius Groher, Sam Wood, Ed Ready, Frank Lato, Lewis Benko, Frank Sirico and Tommy Sirico, whose leather helmet is on display in the NCHS trophy room.
Football was fast becoming New Canaan’s most popular sport as the high school games drew nice crowds at Mead Park, helping inspire the creation of a semi-pro football team the New Canaan Redskins. As there were limited bleachers at Mead, fans would surround the field behind hastily set up ropes with one end zone at the first base/right field line with the rest of the gridiron extending into the far reaches of center and left field. Fans who saw New Canaan play at Mead will recall the unmistakable sound of the players’ cleats crunching on the pavement as they made their way from the high school, down Mead Street to Park Street and underneath the archway leading into the park. Old timers will also remember the “victory parades” through town, with all the merchants on Elm and Main Streets coming out of their stores, shops and restaurats to ring cowbells in salute of the players, coaches and fans driving through downtown New Canaan.
Such celebrations were somewhat rare in the the postwar years. As gridiron popularity grew, so too did the NCHS football fortunes sink as the Red and Black endured three consecutive losing seasons from 1946 to 1949. Eventually Coach Keyes turned over the reins of the team to newly hired Phys Ed teacher Joseph Sikorski, ending his career with 68 wins, 75 losses and 10 ties.
1949 to 1968 – THE SIKORSKI ERA
Joe Sikorsi was lured to New Canaan by Julius Groher, who–while attending law school–coached Sikorski years earlier while serving as an assistant at St. Basil’s Prep in Stamford. Groher helped Sikorski secure his teaching and coaching job at NCHS in 1949, and the rest was history.
Under Sikorski’s leadership, the Rams (so-christened at the coach’s behest in 1953) won four state titles in the 50’s. The 1950 team went 5-2-1 and took home NC’s first crown, led by Ralph Scott, George Batterson and Vincent Luciana. It was a remarkable turnaround for a program that was winless just two years prior. The 1952 championship squad set a then-school record of 135 points scored as top players Jerry Raschella, Ted Foster, Elliot Gilmore and Robert Bandini continuously thrilled the Mead Park faithful. Two more championships followed in 1953 and ’54, as stars Tony Malizia, George Nash, Charley Kelley and the school’s first all-state selection, tackle Pete Dauk headlined a New Canaan team that went a combined 17-3 from ’53 to ’55.
In 1957 the new high school (now Saxe Middle School) opened up and in 1960 the Rams moved their home games to their new stadium, Stanley P. Mead Field. New Canaan opened the 1960’s with yet another state crown as the ’60 Rams went 8-1 (the lone loss being a 14-12 defeat at the hands of Darien) led by the great running back Peter DiVenere, All-State center Vic Marinovic, linemen Bob and Dick Stewart and quarterback Tom Wood. The Rams won states again in 1965, going 7-2 behind the legendary “Thunder and Lightning” backfield tandem of Joe DiPanni and all-state honoree Milt Word, the blocking of Mark ‘2-5-0’ Rearick and the aerial attack of Bob Patterson and Bill Saunders.
One of the big reasons for New Canaan’s success was Coach Sikorski’s ability to augment the team with a great supporting coaching staff. Key assistants during New Canaan’s run included Ray Parry, Keith MacBain, Don Usher and George Kelly. But perhaps no assistant had a bigger impact than Robert Lynch, who–after a successful stint as head coach at Stamford Catholic and an assistant at URI–came to at NCHS in 1967 as a Phys Ed teacher and Sikorski’s Offensive Coordinator. Lynch brought with him a modern, up-tempo, “West Coast” offense that utilized passing as a main weapon of choice in coordination with a steady ground game. It revolutionized the high school game. It’s no coincidence that Lynch’s arrival coincided with what many consider to be “The Golden Years” of New Canaan Rams football.
1967 to 1975 – “THE GOLDEN YEARS”
In 1967 the Rams renaissance reached a fever pitch. It boasted a roster full of talented players like quarterback Peil Pennington, running backs Len Paglialunga and Lem James, wide receivers Greg Esty and Les Mosley lineman Bob Saunders and a solid defense led by Ben Harvey, Bob Kircher, Bob Saunders, Joe Sillo and Jeff Caldwell. Despite the relative success of recent years, the Rams had not defeated archrival Darien in 20 years. That all came to an end on Saturday, September 23, 1967 in front of a huge crowd at Stanley P. Mead Field as the Rams beat the heavily favored Blue Wave 22-16 in what many consider the greatest game in New Canaan football history.
Buoyed by the success of the ’67 team, Sikorski’s New Canaan Rams reached unprecedented heights in 1968. It was truly the “Year of the Ram” as New Canaan went 10-0 that season, the first undefeated campaign in the 40-year school history. The Rams outscored opponents 411-88 that season on their way to their first FCIAC championship as well as the first of four consecutive state crowns. the 1968 team is widely believed to be the greatest team ever in program history. Peil and Bob Pennington, Tony Suffredini and Len Paglialunga were named to the All-FCIAC team with Paglialunga also being named as All-State.
In 1969, led by James, Kircher, Rocco DiMuzio, Pat Sikorski, Tom Eberhart, Rick Horton and legendary wide receiver Pete Demmerle, the Rams continued to dominate the state, going 10-0 for the second straight year and outscoring the opposition 446-91, again winning conference and state titles. It was a fitting way for Joe Sikorski to end his run as he turned the head coaching reins over to Bob Lynch following the season.
New Canaan continued its winning ways under Lynch in 1970, victorious in its first nine games of the season to establish a state record 33-game winning streak before falling in the season finale to a tough Stamford team coached by the great Jack Hagan. Standouts included Demmerle and record-setting QB Kurt Horton, both of whom went on to play at Notre Dame. New Canaan never lost to Darien under Lynch who led the Rams to six consecutive FCIAC East Championships and three consecutive Connecticut State Titles during his tenure as an assistant and then head coach from 1970 to 1975. The Rams won states in 1971 and the FCIAC in 1972 with Lynch, whose overall record as head coach was 45-11-2–a winning percentage of .793 that is still the best in New Canaan football history. Lynch developed many star players that included Horton, Demmerle, Frank Panella, Dennis Paglialunga and Brian Sikorski before stepping down after the ’75 season.
1976 to 1980 – “NADIR”
Difficult to imagine now, New Canaan had a long dry spell for several years after Lynch’s coaching career came to an end in 1975. In 1976 and 1977, the Rams won only 7 games combined. Things got even worse, as New Canaan went 0-25-2 from 1978 to 1980. Crowds that had reached 8,000 people at Stanley P. Mead Field almost completely vanished along with the victories.
1980 to present – “THE MARINELLI ERA”
In 1980 Vin Iovino was hired as the Athletic Director and a year later he made a hire that would forever change the fortunes of New Canaan’s foundering football program. Lou Marinelli was a young, dynamic coach in Westchester County with experience as a college assistant at his alma mater Springfield College and also at Boston College. Marinelli brought a winning mentality that paid immediate dividends as New Canaan went 4-5 in 1981.
A year later, the unthinkable happened.
Led by star players Pat Shouvlin, Dave Bednar, Todd Murray and Jason Cooper the Rams rolled to an 8-2-1 record en route to the 1982 Class L-2 State Championship with a 20-12 upset win over Naugatuck. It was a true Cinderella story as the Rams had gone from a 29-game winless streak to a state title within two years. The win re-energized the town which rallied around the football program as much as it had during the glory days of the late-60’s and early-70’s. Almost every grade-school boy dreamed of having his name announced by longtime PA man Bob Vanderheyden, echoing across the packed stands of Stanley P. Mead Field.
Under Marinelli, New Canaan evolved into a perennial winner. Great players churned out from the program including future Division 1 athletes Jason Cooper, Matt Kelley, Scott Overbeck and Dan Cantrell. Marinelli also instituted a culture of true “student-athletes” as an unprecedented amount of football players continued their careers in the Ivy League, including Dave Bednar (Harvard), Pat Shouvlin and Bob Warden (Brown), Todd Kovacevich (Dartmouth), Pete Passaro, Scott Sozio and Nico Gutierrez (Columbia), Billy Heyn (Yale), Jerry Reen, Mike Jepsen and Tom McInerney (Princeton), Jim Liddell and Brett Wilderman (Cornell) and many others. It’s a culture that continues to this day, as in 2017 the Rams had nearly 30 alums on college rosters in all NCAA Divisions.
Led by the great running back Chris Silvestri, the Rams won FCIAC’s and States again in 1993. In 1998, the Rams moved from the aging Stanley P. Mead Field to a new state-of-the-art stadium, James Dunning Jr. Field at Hawes Plaza. Dunning Field was and remains the preeminent venue for football, with lights, seating for up to 4,000 fans, an electronic scoreboard, turf playing surface and no track to separate the fans from the field. “Friday Night Lights” at Dunning became THE place to be for the town and in 1999 and 2000 the Rams won back-to-back FCIAC championships.
With the addition of a new offense–the high-flying “spread”–and a factory-like pipeline of a youth football program, the Rams under Marinelli returned to state prominence in the new century. New Canaan won back-to-back CIAC crowns in 2001 and 2002 and pulled off “four-peats” in 2006-09 and 2013-16 along with the FCIAC titles in 2008 and 2013.
In 2017 Coach Marinelli won his 332nd career game, making him the winningest coach in CT high school football state history. He has won a total of 13 State Championships and six FCIAC Championships.
One of the most remarkable milestones in program history was reached when NCHS alum Zach Allen was selected by the Arizona Cardinals in the Third Round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Allen subsequently won the starting Defensive End job in the preseason, thus becoming the first Ram to play in the NFL.
From an 18-player squad with no home field in 1928 to a nationally recognized program in 2019 with players at the highest level of the game…the Rams have come a long way in 90-plus years.
–Written by Terry Dinan