With arguably the best offense in the state of Connecticut and three minutes to go, it looked like Staples would get a serious chance of overtaking a strong Norwich Free Academy squad late in the CIAC Class LL semifinals, but after a bouncing NFA punt struck an unknowing Staples player in the foot, it was obvious this wasn’t the Wreckers’ day. Norwich was able to run out the clock in a 30-28 victory over Staples (10-1) at Ken Strong Stadium in West Haven.
NFA (12-0) will face two-time defending state champion, Xavier, next weekend in the state championship game.
“This was such a big win for us and our program,” Norwich coach Jemal Davis said. “It was important for our league to get some respect, and now our kids know we’re good enough to do this.”
NFA led 30-21 with six minutes left and Staples driving. The Wreckers got inside the two-yard line before Norwich’s Airec Ricks made a fantastic defensive play. Staples quarterback Jack Massie, who ran the option so well on this day, attempted a pitch, but Ricks swatted it out the air and NFA recovered up at their 23-yard line.
“I have no clue how he pulled that off,” quarterback/defensive back Joey Papparelli said. “That’s just an instinctual football play. We needed it.”
Staples got the ball back and Massie hit James Frusciante for a 15-yard touchdown, their second touchdown connection of the game, with 3:15 remaining. The Wreckers forced a quick three-and-out, but the fateful muffed punt never allowed Staples another shot.
“I was on the sideline thinking our defense would need to come up with another play and I saw the punt bounce and the returner was back,” Papparelli said. “Then, I saw the blocker moving backwards and the ball hit him right in the foot, I don’t think our guys even realized it was live so I was screaming, and we recovered it.”
Both offenses lived up to the billing in terms of total yardage, but it was Staples’ lowest point total of the season. NFA finished with 350 total yards and Staples racked up 398 in the loss. The three turnovers obviously hurt the Wreckers.
“We felt like our defense could make some plays today,” Davis said. “We had our skill guys in the defensive backfield and they came up with some plays.”
Besides Papparelli, NFA also started running back Marcus Outlow, wide receiver Ryer Caruso, and running back Ramel Williams on defense. They’ve only played defense for the last three weeks.
“They were two-way players all last year, but we wanted to use them one-way this season,” Davis said. “It’s ‘win or go home time’ though so we put our best out there.”
One of Staples best weapons on both sides of the ball, Nick Kelly, was in street clothes for the semifinal after sustaining a shoulder injury in last week’s quarterfinal win. Patrick Lesch started in his place and ran for 128 yards and a touchdown on just nine carries.
Joey Zelkowitz added 70 yards on 11 carries, and Massie ran for 62 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries.
After a high-scoring first half, the only points scored in the third quarter were off a safety by NFA. Staples was punting from its own 23-yard line, but the snap was shot over the punter’s head and out of the end zone giving NFA a 23-21 lead.
Staples opened the scoring four plays into the game when Massie hit Frusciante for a 34-yard touchdown. NFA scored a minute later to tie the game on 32-yard touchdown from Williams. NFA took a 14-7 lead on a 1-yard run by Papparelli before the Wreckers tied it on a Lesch touchdown run.
The Wildcats held serve again with another touchdown, this time a 38-yard pass from Papparelli to Caruso. Staples answered once again before halftime with a 6-yard score from Massie.
“We thought we could move the ball on them because we’ve moved the ball on everyone,” Davis said. “It was a matter of stopping them and we just made the big plays in the second half to do that.”