Greenwich football gives New Canaan all it can handle, but falls 35-20

Greenwich High School's Luke Bienstock darts through the NCHS defense during Saturday's game against the Rams. — Avery Belicka photo

Greenwich High School’s Luke Bienstock darts through the NCHS defense during Saturday’s game against the Rams. — Avery Belicka photo

Despite the Greenwich High School football team turning the ball over, being called for penalties in key moments of the game, losing lineman Justin Montier on the second play of the game also playing without star running back Austin Longi, the Cards were still well within striking distance throughout most its game against New Canaan High School.

That’s when the Cognetta brothers took over, as both Mike and Matt Cognetta each found the end zone in the fourth quarter to help the Rams escape with a 35-20 victory over Big red earlier today at Dunning Field.

“Penalties were killing us in the first half,” Greenwich High School head coach Rich Albonizio said. “I am actually really proud of my kids. We were really short-handed. Two of our captains were out and I am proud of them. We had a lot of sophomores and juniors out there, guys who got their feet wet for the first time. We hung in there.”

Despite trailing 21-7 at the start of the second half, Greenwich’s defense, which was playing strong throughout the contest, stopped the Rams on its opening drive of the third. On Greenwich’s first drive, they struck gold, courtesy of junior Luke Bienstock.

Starting the drive on the New Canaan 48 with 10:02 to play in the third, Bienstock ran the ball eight of the 11 plays on the drive. He netted 29 yards on his carries and capped off the drive with a two-yard touchdown run with 5:30 to play in the third to make the score 21-14.

“I felt great today,” Bienstock said. “The whole week coaches have been telling me to lower my shoulder and power through kids. I’m a different type of player than Austin. I don’t have his speed and agility, but I got strength and size. That’s what I was trying to use.”

After New Canaan was unable to convert on a fourth down on its next possession, Greenwich got the ball again and once again marched down the field.

Big Red's Ryan Pasquali hands the ball off to Soh Nakayama during the first half of the Greenwich vs. New Canaan game. — Avery Belicka photo

Big Red’s Ryan Pasquali hands the ball off to Soh Nakayama during the first half of the Greenwich vs. New Canaan game. — Avery Belicka photo

Using a 14-play drive that saw Big Red charge 73 yards down the field, Greenwich pounded the New Canaan defense with 10 runs. The one pass was a 30-yard completion from starting quarterback Matt Marzulla to Walker Manning.

The drive ended with 9:33 to play in the game, as Marzulla took the second and goal snap and pushed his way up the middle one yard for the touchdown. However, the PAT by Soh Nakayama sailed wide, so Greenwich still trailed 21-20.

Again, it was Bienstock who paced Greenwich’s running game on the drive. In total Bienstock, who took over for Longi who wasn’t able to play due to an injury, carried the ball 28 times for 125 yards and two touchdowns.

“He played really great today,” Albonizio said. “He’s a great kid. The first game against West Haven, the kids were all over him because we had a third and short and a fourth and short and he bounced one outside in the jumbo package. I’m glad I stuck with him. He’s a great kid who works hard and I’m proud of him.”

“I’m just really thankful for the chance,” Bienstock said. “Obviously no one could replace Austin because he’s such a good player, but I was given a shot to come in here and show them what I can do. I am just really happy to help the team out.”

Trailing by one, Greenwich had the momentum, but New Canaan quickly turned the game around. On its next possession, the Rams found the end zone in four plays. Paced by a Mike Collins’ 37-yard pass completion to Kyle Smith, Collins stepped back two plays later and found Matt Cognetta wide open for the 14-yard touchdown reception.

After Greenwich failed to convert on a fourth down, New Canaan got the ball back with 4:40 left in the game. And this time it was Matt Cognetta who stepped up, as he took the handoff from Collins, sprinted to the New Canaan sideline, beat several Greenwich defenders and ran 57 yards for the touchdown and 35-20 lead.

For Greenwich, Marzulla finished 7-for-19 for 58 yards. In addition to Bienstock’s performance, Ryan Pasquali ran the ball 18 times for 51 yards.

“We fought hard and played with a lot of heart and I’m really proud of our guys,” Pasquali said. “We were really depleted and had a couple of guys missing. After the first half, we could have given up because we were down, but kept on fighting until the end. We were playing well in the secondary and in the front seven. They were getting good pressure on the quarterback, but we kept on making stupid mistakes and getting stupid penalties. If you take out those mistakes and penalties, I think we played pretty even with New Canaan.”

Even before the game started, Big Red was at a disadvantage. Longi, who is Greenwich’s most lethal threat on the offensive side of the ball, as well as returning punts and kickoffs, was sidelined due to an injury he suffered last week.

“My thing is that if you don’t practice, you don’t play,” Albonizio said. “He didn’t practice all week. It’s not a serious injury and he should be able to play next week hopefully.”

Once again it was mental mistakes that cost Greenwich early on. With the game scoreless in the first, Marzulla’s third play from scrimmage during Greenwich’s second drive was picked off by Smith. One play later, Collins threw a 29-yard touchdown completion to Smith for the 7-0 lead.

Midway through the second quarter, the Cards and the Rams were still tied at 7-7 and the GHS defense held strong. With 5:42 to play, New Canaan attempted a 39-yard field goal that was wide, but a defensive holding penalty gave the Rams the ball back. Two plays later Collins found Michael Kraus for the 11-yard touchdown completion to make the score 14-7.

Big Red’s next possession didn’t last long. On the second play of the drive and deep in their side of the field, Marzulla was picked off by Zach Allen, who ran 15 yards for the pick-six.

With the loss, Greenwich fell to 0-3 on the season. In Albonizio’s tenure with the Cardinals, which started in 1997, he has yet to lose his first three games of the season. On the other side of the ball, New Canaan head coach Lou Marinelli won his 300th game as a head coach.

“I couldn’t believe that we were still in the game,” Albonizio said. “If they didn’t throw and catch, they didn’t have much going. We did a good job against the run except for that last touchdown. I think for what we had out there, I was proud. I never had a 0-3 start. I just don’t want to be 0-4.”

The Cardinals will return to action when they host Trinity Catholic High School Thursday night at 7 p.m. The Crusaders will enter the game 3-0, but that doesn’t deter Greenwich.

“I think this is a team that can run the table the rest of the way,” Bienstock said. “If we stopped making those stupid mistakes and pound the ball, we have depth on the team and a great team.”

“We need to come out with intensity every week,” Pasquali said. “We need to act like we have a sense of urgency. We need to have some energy and focus this week during practice if we want to have a shot at getting a victory next week.”

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