Greenwich High football ready to take on tough competition

Although the Greenwich High School football team lost a bunch of talented athletes in key positions to graduation, head coach Rich Albonizio and the rest of the Cardinals are working hard in their quest for a conference and state tournament run this season.

“This group is like an enigma to me,” Albonizio said. “On paper I think we can put out a good group of kids. They are so inexperienced and you don’t really know if you throw the ball to an inexperienced kid if he is going to catch it or if he is going to make that tackle. I think we have enough talent to be good. In some of our scrimmages I thought we looked very good.”

The Cardinals had a stellar season last year. They ran the table in the regular season, netting a perfect 8-0 record. The team’s first loss of the season happened on Thanksgiving, as Greenwich fell in the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference championship game to rival Staples High School on Thanksgiving Day, 48-30.

With only one loss, Greenwich was able to get into the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference class LL tournament. However in the opening round game against Xavier, a depleted Greenwich team fell 55-14.

With the loss to Xavier, Greenwich not only ended its season, but also just over 35 seniors were lost to graduation, including standouts like quarterback Liam O’Neil, who passed for over 1,100 yards and netted 18 touchdowns. Running back Alex McMurray, who rushed for over 650 yards and Mark Bernstein, who netted just under 500 yards on the season, were also lost to graduation.

Receivers Taylor Olmstead, Vincent Ferraro and Joe Kelly also played their final game for Big Red. Ferraro added over 500 yards and netted five touchdown receptions, while Kelly had just over 650 yards and 12 touchdown receptions.

Throw into the mix linemen Nick Spano, Bob Decker, Pat Callahan and Alex McGee and it’s easy to see that Greenwich football has some big shoes to fill this season.

Helping fill those shoes will be quad-captains Jose Melo, Jack Wynne, Jack Harrington and Justin Gaccione.

“I have high expectations for us,” said Wynne, who will be one of the team’s defensive ends. “I think we have a lot of talent and I think that we could have a great season and make it back to the state tournament. Our biggest strength right now is our defense. Our offense is coming along nicely, but as of right now, our defense is really strong and I’m happy with that.”

In addition to Wynne at defensive end, Gaccione will be playing on the offensive line.

“It feels great to be one of the leaders on the offensive line,” added Gaccione. “It’s nice because all the guys on the line look up to me asking questions and I’m always more than happy to answer.”

Greenwich High School head coach Rich Albonizio instructs his football team during a recent practice. — John Ferris Robben photo

Greenwich High School head coach Rich Albonizio instructs his football team during a recent practice. — John Ferris Robben photo

Harrington won’t be ready to play until the fourth week of the regular season, but when he returns from injury he will be playing tight end and will be also joining Wynne at defensive end.

Melo will be replacing O’Neil at quarterback this season. Although Melo has been a wideout for the majority of his time with the Cardinals, he’s also very familiar with the quarterback position. With O’Neil sidelined with a hand injury last season for the first three games, Melo stepped in and Big Red didn’t miss a beat.

“For the last couple of seasons, I’ve been playing receiver so this is my first full year as quarterback. It’s fun. I am expecting a high-intensity and high-tempo offense because I’ve been here for three years and I know the offense pretty well. I expect the offense to go really quick.”

Melo will be the team’s dual threat quarterback, as he can air the ball out or take off down the field in a sprint.

“We are running some options and he has a lot of reads, whether to run or throw,” Albonizio said. “Our triple option is a little different because you can give, run or throw. Our third option isn’t pitch. It’s our throw.”

While Albonizio knows how his quarterback is a dual threat, it’s his leadership ability that stands out.

“His leadership is great,” Albonizio said. “He has done everything in the offseason that we asked of him, whether it was workouts, throwing or if it was about playing anywhere. Besides being a talented quarterback, his leadership is unbelievable. He’s a throwback kind of leader.”

Behind Melo in the backfield will be seniors Tommy Rappa and Kendrick Pozo, although Rappa hurt his shoulder in the preseason and his availability for the season opener is in question. In addition, seniors Ryan Pasquali and Adam Pearson will see time.

Big Red will have several familiar faces in its receiving core, led by Scooter Harrington at tight end and Austin Longi at slot receiver. Juniors Devon McGrath and Justin Henry will be also be starting as wide receivers. Senior Phil Marella and sophomore Walter Manning will also pitch in.

However, all eyes will be on Longi, who showed his potential in Greenwich’s state tournament game against Xavier.

“At times he looks like the best thing since sliced bread,” Albonizio said. “Offensively and defensively he’s one of our best athletes, obviously. He has moves that I don’t think have been invented yet. However, sometimes it’s better to go straight ahead and follow your block instead of doing all that movement that he does.”

Giving the offense the chance to gain some yards will be the offensive line, led by Gaccione.

“It’s essential that we are all on the same page,” Gaccione said. “If Jose doesn’t have the time to throw or read, then it screws up our whole offense. The offensive line is the heart of our offense. Without a strong offensive line, everything could easily start collapsing.”

Fellow senior Vincent Murphy will be the team’s center and senior Andrew Del Carmine will be another guard. To fill out the rest of the line, Wynee might have to see some time on offense as tackle. Greenwich’s other guard will be junior Justin Montier.

“They are all tough, but they just need to not make assignment mistakes,” Albonizio said. “We aren’t concerned about them getting pushed around.”

One of the team’s biggest strengths will be in its defense, led by Wynne and Jack Harrington. Longi will be pacing the team’s corners

“The program always has high expectations and this year is more of the same,” Jack Harrington said. “Coach Al has been doing this a long time and the expectations here rarely change. We always try to play our best football, make the state tournament and play for an FCIAC championship.”

In addition to Wynne and Harrington, Domenic Calassacco and John Fischer will be leading the defense at the defensive tackle positions. The corners this year will be Longi and Pasquali. The team’s free safety will be Griffin Tiedy and the other two safeties will be Gardy Lebon and Stevie Lewis.

“Jack Harrington and Jack Wynne are both big kids that are very athletic,” said Albonizio. “I think our linebackers should be pretty good and our secondary is going to be good. We have two fast corners and a free safety that seems pretty good. I think we will be OK on defense.”

When it comes to special teams, Peter Heerdt will be Big Red’s punter and placekicking.

“He has worked very hard on that,” Albonizio said. “He doesn’t have a lot of game experience and the other day he seemed to be a little nervous. As the game wore on, he got better and better. He got more confidence and that’s what he needs.”

Greenwich High is tested right away this season. In what starts a brutal five-game stretch, Big Red opens its season at Cardinal Stadium tonight against West Haven, another team looking to make its way into the state tournament this season.

“Right from the start we play a lot of tough opponents, but we embrace the challenge,” Harrington said. “We really want to come out and set the tone for our season against West Haven and try to build off of that. Hopefully, we will take care of Darien and New Canaan next.”

And from there it doesn’t get any easier. On Sept. 21, Greenwich hits the road for the first time and battles Darien High School at 2. A week later Big Red returns home and will face perennial powers New Canaan High School at 4.

“The kids’ve got to be tough and answer back,” Albonizio said. “They have to play the way I think they are capable of playing and not question themselves. Some times young kids lack confidence and the only way you can get it is by playing.”

After an away game with Trinity Catholic High School, Greenwich travels back home for a game against Norwalk High School.

“The first five game are easily going to make or break our season,” Gaccione said. “If we don’t come out strong, then we could possible get in trouble. I think we are coming along nicely and our defense is looking really good. The first game against West Haven is going to be something I’ll always remember and hopefully we draw a big crowd.”

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