Cutting a daunting 20-point halftime deficit to just four points heading into the fourth quarter of Thursday's FCIAC championship game, the stage was set for the Greenwich High School football team to complete a comeback to remember against defending league champion Staples.
With each yard, the Cardinals gained more momentum and by the time they reached Staples' 25-yard line a Greenwich win, which seemed improbable at halftime, seemed possible.
But Staples registered a crucial stop defensively, then got started again offensively.
Junior quarterback Jack Massie's 55-yard touchdown run off the option and senior running back Joey Zelkowitz's 21-yard score put the finishing touches on Staples' impressive 48-30 victory over Greenwich before a Thanksgiving crowd of approximately 5,000 at Cardinal Stadium.
The speedy Zelkowitz was named the game's MVP, rushing for an astounding 317 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries for the Wreckers, who claimed their second straight Jerry McDougall trophy with the triumph. Staples beat Greenwich for the title a year ago, 31-27.
"It's all thanks to the line, the receivers -- everyone is blocking," said Zelkowitz, who broke off runs of 75, 62, 58, 34 and 21. "It was a complete team effort, it just wasn't me. At the end of the third quarter our goal was to win the fourth quarter and we accomplished it."
Trailing 34-14 at the half, Greenwich (8-1) outscored Staples 16-0 in the third quarter, quickly making it a 34-30 game.
"At halftime, we were sitting with our heads down and the captains decided to give the team a little speech," Cardinals senior running back Alex McMurray said. "We knew we had to come out with intensity in the third quarter to get back in the game. But in the fourth quarter after they stopped us it ruined our momentum."
"We made some nice plays, but they made more of them," said GHS coach Rich Albonizio, whose Cardinals were vying for their 13th FCIAC title. "They are tough, big, strong and fast and they play great defense."
With the loss, Greenwich is ranked sixth heading into the Class LL playoffs, where they will visit third-seeded and defending champion Xavier (9-1) in the first round. Top-seeded Staples (9-0) will host West Haven (8-2).
Down 34-30, Greenwich reached the Staples 25-yard line after McMurray ran for five yards on 4th-and-1 early in the fourth quarter. It was there the Wreckers' defense stiffened. Wreckers senior defensive end Pieter Hoets helped halt the drive, sacking Cards senior quarterback Liam O'Neil for a 9-yard loss.
The visitors then drove 73 yards in five plays, capped by Massie's 55-yard run down the right sideline off the option on 4th-and-1 play with 6:30 remaining to seize a 41-30 advantage.
"If we want to be a championship team when it's fourth and less than one and the ball is on the 45 we have to get that first down," Staples coach Marce Petroccio said. "We changed the play at the line of scrimmage and Massie (7-of-9, 144 yards passing) did a great job of running it and that proved to be the final nail in the coffin."
After forcing the Cardinals to go three-and-out on the ensuing possession, the Wreckers sealed Greenwich's fate, scoring on Zelkowitz's 21-yard burst up the middle with 1:57 left to play. Running behind bruising offensive linemen Kyle Vaughn, Chris Speer, Nick Ward, Will Patrick and Burim Trdevaj, Zelkowitz eclipsed the 2001 FCIAC championship game record of 229 yards rushing set by Greenwich's Steve Longo in the first half, totaling 261 yards.
"With the running backs we have, if you block your guys for a couple of seconds, it's off to the races," the 6-foot-4, 280-pound Vaughn said. "We had the experience of winning it last year, so we weren't going to give this title up."
The Cardinals began their third-quarter comeback, going 69 yards in eight plays. With the passing game struggling, Greenwich relied on its ground attack to move the ball. McMurray (13 carries, 58 yards) followed a 19-yard run by bulling his way up the middle from 1-yard out for a touchdown, slicing the Wreckers' advantage to 34-21 2:46 into the third quarter. A 58-yard punt return by senior Vincent Ferraro set the Cards up on the Wreckers' 22-yard line and four plays later McMurray scored on a 4-yard run, bringing Greenwich to within 34-28 at the 3:23 mark.
"That's a testament to the hard work we put in this year and the adjustments we made at halftime," GHS senior safety/receiver Taylor Olmstead said. "We knew we had a chance to come back."
Staples (9-0) fumbled the opening kickoff, which was recovered by senior Alex McGee at the 25-yard line. The Wreckers (399 yards rushing) got the ball right back though, as senior defensive back/receiver James Frusciante (three receptions, 97 yards) intercepted O'Neil's pass in the end zone on Greenwich's first play from scrimmage. Frusciante's 23-yard touchdown reception concluded a 10-play 80-yard drive, giving Staples a 7-0 first-quarter edge. Junior Patrick Lesch's 13-yard run straight up the middle, put GHS in a 14-0 hole with 3:16 to go in the opening quarter.
Sophomore Austin Longi gave the Cards a lift, returning the ensuing kickoff 65 yards to the end zone, making it 14-7.
"We were down and I knew I had to do something to get us back in the game," Longi said. "I made a mistake (he was covering Frusciante on the first touchdown) and I wanted to make up for it."
The Cardinals fell behind, 20-7, after Zelkowitz dashed to the end zone on a 62-yard run off a sweep to the left, but again fought back. Junior Jack Harrington recovered a muffed punt at the 24-yard line and McMurray found the end zone on a 6-yard run, putting Greenwich just one score back. But Zelkowitz ran it in from 58 yards out and senior Lance Lonergan returned an O'Neil (6-of-18, 74 yards) interception seven yards for a touchdown, giving the Wreckers a 34-14 lead heading into halftime.
"We knew we couldn't end the game going out like that," GHS senior defensive lineman Pat Callahan said. "We had the ability to stop them, but our assignments didn't work out and we left some holes open for them."
Said Albonizio: "The adjustments we made were pretty good, but a little bit too little, a little too late. You have to take advantage of our opportunities offensively, when you have them and we didn't do that."
Though disappointed with the loss, the Cardinals know they must turn the page quickly and prepare to play Xavier.
"Losing to Staples two years in a row is tough for us, but we have states coming up Tuesday," Olmstead said. "We have to try to reach our other goal of winning states."
Staples 48, Greenwich 30
STAPLES 20 14 0 14--48
GREENWICH 7 7 16 0--30
S--Patrick Lesch 13 run (Mike Gifford kick)
G--Austin Longi 65 kickoff return (Jesse Adelberg kick)
S--Joey Zelkowitz 62 run (kick failed)
G--Alex McMurray 6 run (Adelberg kick)
S--Zelkowitz 58 run (Gifford kick)
S--Lance Lonergan 7 interception return (Gifford kick)
G--McMurray 1 run (Adelberg kick)
G--McMurray 4 run (Adelberg kick)
G--Safety (ball snapped out of end zone)
S--Jack Massie 55 run (Gifford kick)
S--Zelkowitz 21 run (Gifford kick)
Records: Staples 9-0, Greenwich 8-1