Staples head coach Marce Petroccio saw it coming as early as the preseason, when Greenwich felt it was strong enough to schedule a scrimmage against nationally-ranked Don Bosco Prep of New Jersey, the No. 1 team in the MSGVarsity Tri-State Top-25 poll.
“I know they didn’t beat them, but they did play them tough. They’re tough kids. At that point I knew there was a very good chance it could happen,” said Petroccio in reference to a possible second-straight showdown with the Cardinals on Thanksgiving Day.
Greenwich head coach Rich Albonizio expected a return by the Wreckers, a loaded team that returned just about everyone from last season’s FCIAC championship unit, and felt good about his own chances.
“It’s what we hoped for,” Albonizio said. “I think there are always a few surprise teams people tend to look past, but it was definitely a scenario most people expected.”
Greenwich and Staples proceeded to tear through the competition during the regular season, and when Darien ended Trinity Catholic’s undefeated season, the door was ripped open. Now it’s here, another titanic clash between the Wreckers and Cardinals, who will play in the 46th annual FCIAC Championship game Thursday at 10 a.m. in front of what is expected to be an overflow crowd at Cardinals Stadium in Greenwich.
The game will be live-streamed on MSGVarsity.com
It’ll be a battle of two 8-0 teams and a rematch of last season’s thrilling championship game in Westport, during which Staples came back from a 27-17 deficit in the fourth quarter to post a 31-27 victory, scoring the game-winning touchdown with 1:21 left.
Staples will be gunning for its 7th FCIAC title, making its 10th appearance in the big game. Greenwich, which has won a conference-record 12 championships in what will be its 22nd appearance, has lost three straight meeting with the Wreckers, which can only add fuel to their fire.
Staples has also won five of the seven meetings since the rivals started playing on Thanksgiving in 2005.
“I think this team is motivated all the time,” Albonizio said. “But playing Staples on Thanksgiving for the FCIAC title definitely adds motivation for our kids.”
A Thanksgiving Day championship game is becoming something of a tradition for these two perennial powerful programs. This will be the third time in six years Staples and Greenwich will meet on Thanksgiving for the right to hoist the Jerry McDougall Trophy, which came into existence last season following the passing of the longtime and beloved Trumbull coach.
Last year’s epic battle, along with a volatile relationship between the two programs , one that is mixed with equal parts respect and rancor, is turning this rivalry into one of the best in the Tri-State area.
“I think it’s getting there,” Albonizio said. “The longer we continue to play well and play well against each other, I think it’ll get even bigger.”
This is the fourth time Staples and Greenwich are meeting in the FCIAC championship game. The Wreckers won last season and the Cardinals won 37-0 in 2007 with one of the greatest teams in school history. The two teams also met in 1974 with Greenwich winning that game.
“I think it’s a tribute to both programs that we’ve each been able to have so much success,” Petroccio said. “Now to not only be able to play a great team but get to play them for a championship, that’s exciting.”
This is the game both teams circled in red on their calendars during the preseason, and for good reason.
Neither one received anything close to a scare this season. Staples was tied with St. Joseph 7-7 going into the third quarter of the season-opener, but won that game 49-28.
The Cardinals and Wreckers were so far above the competition, they finished the regular season by out-scoring their opponents by a combined score of 814-227 with Staples averaging 53 points per game and Greenwich 49.
Finally, the two bitter rivals can prepare for a game that should be anything but a blowout. They’ll be doing it in front of a crowd expected to swell to over 5,000 fans and a television audience as MSGVarsity broadcasts live.
“This is what we play for,” Petroccio said. “This is what we work hard for, to play and coach in games like this.”
Typically, this game is not only for the FCIAC title, but also for the right to play in the state playoffs. Very often, one or the other will get knocked out, as Greenwich did last season. But this year, both teams enter the game with the comfort of knowing they’re already locked into the state tournament. Staples is ranked second in the Class LL field and Greenwich is third. Neither one can be knocked out with a loss.
That should make this year’s game more of a pure FCIAC championship, with nothing on the line other than the league crown.
“I think it helps knowing you’re in, sort of like the old way of doing it when you knew before the FCIACs if you were in the states,” Albonizio said. “This way you can put the FCIAC game on display on Thanksgiving, which is something I’ve been pushing for. It definitely takes the pressure off.”
Still, there are a few state playoff implications left.
“To us, a championship is a championship, but there is so much at stake with this game,” Petroccio said. “The loser might not get a home game for the quarterfinals. That means getting on a bus at 4 o’clock and going on the road, and that’s big.”
The Wreckers and Cardinals bring two of the most explosive offenses in the state to the field. Staples scored 422 points in eight games, going over 50 points four times, including a 63-point effort against Darien. Greenwich also eclipsed the 50-point plateau four times, dropping 62 points on Trumbull and 63 on Westhill.
This could be the old case of who has the ball last.
“It could come down to defense and special teams, although we haven’t seen them punt much, so we don’t even know how they punt,” Albonizio said. “We’re very similar teams. They have a size advantage on the offensive line, but other than that it should be a great matchup. It’s going to come down to who makes the fewest mistakes.”
“It’s going to come down to turnovers,” he said. “Both defenses can play. That kid (Taylor) Olmstead can really get after it. So it’s going to come down to who can slow the other team down and who makes the least mistakes.”
Greenwich will have to contend with a Staples offense that can run the option behind junior quarterback Jack Massie, or light it up with the passing game behind All-State senior wide receiver James Frusciante, who has hauled in 31 receptions for 552 yards and eight touchdowns.
Massie has thrown for 1,043 yards, 11 touchdowns and three interceptions while rushing for 491 yards and another eight scores. Staples also has a triple-threat backfield led by the speed of senior Nick Kelly (465 yards, 9 touchdowns), the power and quickness of senior Joey Zelkowitz (636 yards, 10 touchdowns) and the added punch of junior Patrick Lesch (563 yards, 7 touchdowns).
“Their offensive schemes are very intricate,” Albonizio said. “When you can run the option and throw the ball as well, that’s a pretty tough combination to stop. To do both well, that puts a lot of pressure on the defense.”
Greenwich will also have to be wary on special teams of Frusciante, who has returned two punts for touchdowns this season.
“He’s a tremendous athlete,” Albonizio said. “No doubt.”
Greenwich has a ton of athletes on their side of the ball as well. The Cardinals typically give a big dose of the running to senior Alex McMurray, a converted quarterback who runs hard up the middle. Mark Bernstein gives the Cardinals a nice change of pace.
Greenwich can also throw the ball behind quarterback Liam O’Neil, senior tight end Joe Kelly (13 touchdowns) and shifty wide receiver Jose Melo, who started the season at quarterback, running the wildcat while O’Neil was nursing a broken finger. Petroccio said he’s preparing for both quarterbacks, just in case.
“You never know,” he said. “They’re both very dangerous, so we have to be ready for that.”
Staples is led defensively by Lance Lonergan (63 tackles), Jared Levi (41 tackles, 5 sacks) and Pieter Hoets (60 tackles, 5.5 sacks).