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Saturday, March 24 Sports

New Canaan football practices news and notes

The number 28 shines through in every aspect of New Canaan football's preseason.

You see it in the way 34-year headman Lou Marinelli works nose first with his youthful defensive line.

You see it in the assistant coaches' exuberance over a particularly successful pass play during 7-on-7s.

You can hear it in the booming, fuming voices of those same coaches when they berate the Rams for giving in to fatigue under a relentless sun.

Last spring, New Canaan bid adieu to 28 seniors who captained a spectacular championship campaign in their final season. The void the class of 2014 leaves behind is immense, especially in the trenches, and replacing them will be nothing short of a tough task. But the Rams' plan for this season won't be, so to speak, to wait until last year.

In the face of its inexperience and question marks at key positions, New Canaan is aiming for another championship; the same goal it's chased in nearly every season of the Marinelli era.

The good news for the reigning state champions is new senior captains Alex LaPolice and Zach Allen, both key cogs in the 2013 title run, look better than ever.

LaPolice was the best player on the field at Tuesday's preseason practice, regularly separating from all defenders and making a number of difficult catches. The Harvard football commit has worked tirelessly over his high school career to put himself in top-flight shape, which he hopes will continue to pay off in his farewell season.

"I had weight room, early-morning workouts and 7-on-7s all summer," LaPolice said. "And today we got after it. We got called out the other day by our coaching staff saying we weren't going fast enough and weren't working hard enough, so we took that as a personal challenge, put our heads down and went about our business ... and we're chugging along, so I'm excited."

Allen, meanwhile, dominated at the point of attack in brief special teams work and saw time at tight end later in the afternoon. Offensively, the Rams must replace the tremendous production of all-state receiver Cole Turpin and wideout Jack Gilio, who both graduated in June. At 6-foot-6, Allen will be a match-up nightmare for opponents in the passing game, particularly when he's split out as a slot receiver.

Oh, and then there's the team-high 11.5 sacks Allen carries with him from a year ago, which helped the stud defensive end land a scholarship to Northwestern in April.

When Allen's not busy chasing down opposing quarterbacks, he will be raising up his own signal caller, who at this time appears to be junior Mike Collins. The tall signal caller took a high majority of snaps with the first-team offense in extensive 7-on-7 work and threw for New Canaan in July's Grip It and Rip It passing tournament. James Cravatto is also in the mix under center, but there was little doubt Collins enjoyed the better day Tuesday.

He rifled a number of strong, accurate throws on out-breaking, intermediate routes and was decisive in earlier work focused on plays with run-pass options. Marinelli has been adamant about trying to get Cravatto up to speed, but for now, Collins has the edge.

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"Great," LaPolice said of how Collins has looked in practice. "I'm excited. I can't wait. We've been working since (former Rams quarterback Nick Cascione) left in the winter, two weeks after the state championship. The receivers are all really coming along, so I'm excited."

Now, here's the bad news: Understandably, New Canaan looks light in its offensive and defensive lines. The losses of Connor Buck, Beau Santero, Michael Donnelly, Alex Dobbin and others will do that. There is potential along each starting front to develop into a solid group, but depth behind them is thin. Only time will tell how these position groups come along, and they won't have much time to learn on the fly with a tough opener at Daniel Hand, which suffered very little graduation loses, on Friday, Sept. 12.

The remedy for such shortcomings and the inexperience of this year's group, per LaPolice, is simple.

"Just put our heads down and go about our business," LaPolice said. "Darien and Greenwich have all the hype, which they completely deserve. They have a lot of guys coming back, great talent, and we've got a lot of unknown guys, but our whole mentality has been next man up and I think we've got the talent to do it."

Plays of the Day

Leaping out of the right corner of the end zone, LaPolice snagged a seemingly overthrown Collins pass during 7-on-7s and came crashing down with a catch. While the Rams captain landed slightly out of bounds, he demonstrated tremendous focus and athletic ability, which will come into greater focus as his rapport with Collins further deepens in games.

Moments earlier, senior wideout Sterling O'Hara recorded his own remarkable reception, despite a violent collision with the nearest defender at the time of the pass' arrival.

Quick Hits

Senior running back Frank Cognetta, who chugged along for more than 1,200 yards last season, moved around practice with the aid of crutches and a walking boot. He suffered a broken foot over the summer and is expected to miss half the season.

O'Hara filled in very nicely at wideout opposite LaPolice and feels ready to assume a starting offensive role after two years on first-string special teams.

Smartly, the offense spent a good deal of time working on passing drills designed for receivers to practice making difficult catches.

LaPolice took a handful of snaps as a quarterback in a more relaxed period of the practice, but none during the lengthy 7-on-7 session.