Sweet FCIAC repeat for juggernaut Staples
It was midway through the fourth quarter, fourth down and less than a yard just beyond midfield and his team clinging to a four-point lead.
Play it safe and punt it away?
Not a chance, not with this offensive line.
In a battle of unbeatens filled with momentum swings, junior quarterback Jack Massie tipped the scales in Staples' favor to stay as he scored on a 46-yard option keeper and the Wreckers went on to defend their FCIAC championship with a well-earned 48-30 victory over a game Greenwich squad at jam-packed Cardinal Stadium Thursday.
The nearly 5,000 fans on hand for the 47th annual FCIAC championship (2nd annual Jerry McDougall FCIAC championship game) were treated to a Thanksgiving day slugfest between two longtime rivals -- and state powerhouses.
It turned out to be quite a day for the Wreckers (9-0), who captured their seventh league crown -- and third in the last four years -- while also securing the top spot in the CIAC Class LL tournament.
Staples head coach Marce Petroccio was both elated and relieved to head back to Westport with another championship plaque in hand.
"This team has the heart of a lion and so do they," said Petroccio, who likened the rivals' latest battle to the original Rocky. "Like Apollo said in the movie, there ain't gonna be no rematch. The only way I hope to see Greenwich again is in the state finals."
As for the decision to go for it on fourth down -- on a play that powered the Wreckers to a 41-30 lead with 6:40 remaining?
"If you want to be a championship team you've got to convert those," Petroccio said. "There was no doubt. I said 'Let's go.'"
It was a dominant performance on the ground by the Wreckers in general, and senior Joey Zelkowowitz in particular.
The Wreckers outgained the Cardinals 559-232 yards, with 412 of those yards coming on the ground.
Zelkowitz, the game's MVP, had a monster game with 317 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries and actually broke the FCIAC championship game rushing record in the first half with 260 yards in the first two quarters alone.
"All the credit goes to our line," Zelkowitz said of the front wall of seniors Kyle Vaughn, Chris Speer, Will Patrick, and Burim Trdevaj, and junior Nick Ward. "This is a great rivalry, so it feels really good to defend the title on their field. The goal all season has been to go 1-0 each week, and hopefully we can carry that over into states."
Senior Alex McMurray rushed 13 times for 64 yards and three touchdowns for the Cardinals (8-1), who fell to the No. 6 in the Class LL rankings and will play at defending state champ Xavier in Tuesday's quarterfinals. Staples will host West Haven in another FCIAC vs. SCC playoff matchup.
With Zelkowitz (touchdown carries of 62 and 58 yards before a back-breaking scoring run from 22 yards out with 1:57 remaining) running wild in the first half, Staples built a comfortable 34-14 halftime cushion.
Or so it seemed.
McMurray scored on back-to-back touchdown runs from 1 and 4 yards out in the third quarter as the Cards clawed back in it.
The momentum was then clearly in Greenwich's favor after a three-and-out as a high snap on a punt attempt sailed into the back of the end zone for a safety, trimming the Wreckers' lead to 34-30 with late in the third quarter.
Greenwich was on the verge of teaching its first lead, but a huge sack by senior Pieter Hoets set up a third-and-long and the Cards' drive would eventually fizzle out on the Wreckers' 27.
"We had some opportunities but weren't able to take advantage," Greenwich coach Rich Albonizio said. "Our offense and defense didn't have their best day, and neither did I. We had some kids banged up and their backups got caught out of position a few times, but all the credit goes to Staples. They made more plays than we did."
The game actually started out in ominous fashion for the Wreckers when Greenwich's Alex McGee recovered a fumble on the opening kickoff.
But on the next play from the Staples' 25-yard-line, Zelkowitz picked off a pass in the end zone to give the Wreckers the ball right back.
That was one of three interceptions on the day by a Staples defense that held Liam O'Neil to 6 of 17 passing for just 72 yards.
Meanwhile, the ever-efficient finished 8 of 10 for 147 yards to go along with two carries for 58 yards.
Massie connected with senior two-way standout James Frusciante, who made a leaping catch in the end zone for a 24-yard touchdown to give Staples a 7-0 lead five minutes into the game.
After two big runs by Zelkowitz, junior Patrick Lesch capped Staples' second drive with a 13-yard scoring run with 3:16 left in the first quarter.
Greenwich would get back into it on a 65-yard kickoff return for a score by sophomore Austin Longi, before Zelkowitz sprinted 62 yards to make it 20-7 after a high-scoring first quarter.
The Cards again closed to within one score after a fumbled punt return as McMurray darted in from 6 yards out early in the second quarter.
But Staples' quick-strike rushing attack was on display one more time in the first half, this time as Zelkowitz went up the middle for a 58-yard touchdown to make it 27-14.
After a missed 22-yard field goal by the Cardinals, Zelkowitz broke off a 75-yard run and Staples was in business again.
But a gutty goal-line stand by Greenwich held the Wreckers off the board -- at least until senior Lance Lonergan returned an interception 8 yards for a touchdown with 30 seconds left in the half.