Greenwich High football stuffs Wreckers in Turkey Day battle [SLIDESHOW]

Don’t tell the Greenwich High School football team that it had nothing to play for during Thursday’s annual Thanksgiving Day battle with rival Staples High School.

Coming into the game Thursday morning in Westport, Big Red already knew its slim playoff chances were extinguished, as Ridgefield High took care of its business and beat Danbury High School a day earlier. However, that didn’t deter the Cardinals from playing the role of spoiler, as Staples was still much alive in the CIAC class LL playoff picture.

Using a dominating performance on all sides of the ball, the Greenwich football team saved its best football game for the end of the season. The result was a stunning 27-7 victory over the Wreckers.

“We wish we made playoffs, but Thanksgiving is a great environment and Staples is a really good football team,” GHS senior Jack Harrington said. “We love the rivalry we have with them. It especially feels good because a lot of guys that lost to Staples in the past came back from Thanksgiving break from college. It’s great that we can do this for them, since they put in so much effort during their time here and taught us how to play.”

GHS head coach Rich Albonizio, who was inducted into the Connecticut High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame a week before the Turkey Day game, said his group of Cardinals played even better than the scoreboard indicated.

“I thought the defense played their best game of the year against a very good offensive team,” Albonizio said. “Staples is a great team and their quarterback is a terrific player. They hit, they are well-coached and are very difficult to play against because they can do so many things on offense, but this was our turn.”

While Greenwich was able to get three touchdowns on the day from standout junior Austin Longi and another coming from a quarterback keeper by Matt Marzulla, it was Big Red’s defense that stood out, holding the Wreckers to only seven points on the day.

“This is unbelievable,” said senior Jack Wynne, one of the leaders on defense. “After seeing the seniors lose to Staples since I have been here, and seeing them crying after the games, it feels really nice to be able to do this for those guys. It’s the greatest feeling in the world and I am so happy I was able to do it for all those guys. We brought it today on defense. We have been working so hard for nearly two weeks. We weren’t sure we were going to make States, but we knew we would give Staples one hell of a game.”

“This is the best our defense has played all year,” Albonizio said. “This was against a very good football team, as far as offense goes. Massie [senior Staples quarterback Jack Massie] is a good competitor and a great quarterback.”

After forcing the Wreckers to punt on their opening possession, Greenwich didn’t waste time scoring on their opening drive. On a five-play drive that was keyed by a Longi 23-yard run, Longi finished the job by taking the handoff and running four yards for the touchdown and 7-0 lead with 9:14 to play in the quarter.

On Staples’ next possession, Longi came up big again, this time picking off Massie. That was the first of two interceptions for Longi on the day.

“It feels great right now,” Longi said. “I definitely didn’t have one of my better games. Two fumbles weren’t good for me at all, but I did get two picks to make up for them. We came out ready to play for Staples and made it happen. We made sure we had a man on the quarterback and running back the entire time on defense. I felt good with the ball. I found good holes and made it happen when I could.”

In addition to Longi’s interceptions, Wynne netted a sack on a key third down and Jack Weigold had a massive sack on Massie on fourth down.

Longi helped Greenwich build a 13-0 lead to start the second quarter. Leading the way with a 35-yard run, Marzulla called his own number five plays later and darted up the middle of the field 14 yards for the touchdown.

Feeding off a huge sack by Wynne on third down that forced Staples to punt to Big Red, Greenwich capitalized on its ensuing possession. On a fourth down and six from the Staples 40, Longi grabbed the handoff and darted 36 yards down the field for the first down. The next play saw Marzulla fake the handoff and run 13 yards, just missing a touchdown as his knee hit the turf at the one-yard line.

Two plays later, Longi ran two yards for the touchdown and 20-0 lead with 6:45 to play in the half.

“Austin is phenomenal,” Albonizio said. “You know what’s coming and you set your defense where he’s going to run the ball and you still can’t stop him. He’s a phenomenal athlete and the best thing about him is that he’s only a junior. When in doubt, give the ball to Austin.”

Staples netted its lone score of the game with 38.2 to play in the half, but Greenwich responded in the second half, using an eight-play drive to find the end zone. With 1:22 to play, Longi took the handoff, ran up the middle of the field, cut toward the Staples sideline and sprinted 39 yards for the touchdown and 27-7 lead.

In fact, Greenwich kept the clock rolling and had the pigskin for just under 10 minutes in the third quarter.

“We knew coming into this game that it was going to be a battle, and it was definitely a battle,” senior Justin Gaccione said. “We knew we had to get a good push from the offensive line in the first half because they were much bigger than us. I think we did just that. We kept on getting the push and that helped make the holes that Austin and Tommy [Rappa] needed.”

One of the reasons Big Red was able to maintain the ball for so long, whether on that drive in the third quarter or any of the successful drives on Thanksgiving Day, was due to the offensive line.

“They have done a great job all year,” Albonizio said. “That was probably, coming into our season, the weak point of the team. At one point of the season, we had three sophomores starting on the offensive line. That was great because they are all coming back, but it was still tough. We fought through it, though, and really improved.”

With the victory, Greenwich ended its season 8-3 overall. Staples also finished its season 8-3 overall.

“This game was big because we wanted Staples to know that they are in for a big fight on Thanksgiving, and it hasn’t been like that recently,” Albonizio said. “Although the games have been close, the last four years they won. They have to know that when they play Greenwich, they’re going to be in for a fight.”

Greenwich started the season on a high note, beating West Haven in a thrilling 22-21 contest where the defense came up huge. However, Big Red had issues in its next two games, falling to Darien 42-21 and New Canaan 66-20. After beating Trinity Catholic 42-14 and Norwalk 49-0, Greenwich had a key battle with Trumbull High School.

Despite Longi’s more than 330-yard performance, GHS was unable to stop Nick Roberts and the Eagles’ offense, falling 50-44.

“The game that sticks in my throat was Trumbull because we really played poorly on defense,” Albonizio said. “We had five fumbles and still scored almost 50 points.”

Since the Trumbull game, Big Red has been dominating the competition, beating Warde (42-7), Bridgeport Central (61-24), Westhill (40-7), Danbury (57-29), and the Wreckers.

“I couldn’t be prouder of the way this team finished off the season,” Wynne said. “I am so excited for these juniors. We’ve picked up our tradition, came back strong and got that Cardinal pride back. Our attitude stayed up the entire time. When we lost those two games early in the season, that hurt us. We weren’t sure how good we could be, but we’ve been fighting since those games and like where we have ended up.”

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