Greenwich High football team reloaded for playoff run

Another season and another round of high expectations for the Greenwich High School football program.

While the pressure is on for Big Red to get back to the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference class LL playoffs and capture another FCIAC crown, head coach Rich Albonizio wouldn’t want it any other way.

“It’s the nature of our program,” Albonizio said. “It’s a compliment that people expect that teams like Staples, New Canaan and us to win. We have those same high expectations.”

Last year Big Red finished the season 8-2 overall, losing to non-conference opponent New London High School 51-33 and to rivals Staples High School in the FCIAC title game 31-27 on Thanksgiving Day.

Leading the way for this year’s group will be captains Taylor Olmstead, Liam O’Neil, Alex McGee, Alex McMurray and Joe Kelly.

“All five of them are good players and great leaders,” Albonizio said. “They all know what it take to win games and they do a great job teaching the younger kids on the team.”

O’Neil is one of those athletes looking to make some noise in his final season with the Cardinals. Last year, O’Neil started the season by missing the first three games of the season due to a concussion he sustained in the preseason. Despite playing the majority of the season, O’Neil still threw for 691 yards on the season and was stellar throughout his junior year.

However, this year looks like it’s going to start the same way the previous season did. During Saturday’s practice, O’Neil broke his index finger on his throwing hand. Albonizio is hoping O’Neil will be only out three to five weeks.

“I feel bad for Liam,” Albonizio said. “Liam hasn’t had the best luck when it comes to staying away from injuries early in the year.”

In O’Neil’s absence, it appears that captain and senior running back McMurray will move from the backfield and take the spot under center.

“Alex is confident and he’s got a cockiness about him,” Albonizio said. “He knows our offense. However, he doesn’t throw the ball as well. Obviously most of the things we will do with him will be a wildcat package. He’s going to run or hand off. Against Masuk in the preseason we ran the wildcat and it worked really well.”

To see how effective McMurray could be in the wildcat, look no further than last year’s FCIAC championship game against Staples. McMurray was able to move the ball with ease and finished with a team-high 86 yards, 68 of which came on a touchdown reception where he darted past the defense.

One of Greenwich’s wideouts, as well as the team’s backup quarterback, Jose Melo, is also unable to take snaps. The senior hasn’t taken the field during the preseason, as he injured his knee outside of practice. Although the doctor gave Melo the OK to practice, he was still limping. So Albonizio stopped him from practicing until Melo receives a brace for the knee.

“If we are able to have Jose come back, we will throw the ball,” Albonizio said. “He’s got a cannon for an arm. If he’s around, we can run the ball effectively with McMurray and let Jose throw the ball. The nice thing is that we don’t have to change personnel because McMurray can go to his spot and Melo can go to his spot.”

In addition to McMurray seeing time at the running back position, Mark Bernstein and Dan Claroni will be the mainstays behind the quarterback.

“They are both smart and tough kids and great leaders,” Albonizio said. “We have McMurray back there, who is a tough kid to take down, and he will be leading the team both on and off the field.

Greenwich’s backfield will need to step up its game throughout the season, as the Cardinals lost Shane Nastahowski, who netted just over 1,000 yards of offense and had 20 touchdowns last year, to graduation. Also Big Red lost Michael Daly, who finished with 367 yards on the ground

Vincent Ferraro, Olmstead and Melo will be the team’s wideouts this year. Although Greenwich lost Joel Arroyo, who led the way with 348 receiving yards, to graduation, Ferraro was second on the team with 191 yards on 15 receptions. Joe Kelly is once again taking up the tight end spot on the team. Last year Kelly was third on the team in reception yards, netting 182 on 13 receptions.

“Our skilled kids are pretty experienced,” Albonizio said. “I am looking for big things from all of them, as they all are really talented kids that know the game. We have to get the ball in all their hands. They are all playmakers. If we rely on just one of them, we’re not going to do well. Last year we could rely on Shane if our passing wasn’t there, but this year I think our passing game will make our running game better and vice versa.”

Greenwich’s most inexperienced group is the offensive line, with center Bob Decker the lone returner from last year. Senior tackle Nick Spano was injured last season and was unable to suit up. However, entering he’s healthy this time around and ready to go. Andrew DelCarmine will be playing the guard position, while McGee, who played solely defense last year for Big Red, will be on offense as well. Junior Jack Wynne could see some time at tackle this year as well as on defense.

When it comes to defense, Greenwich High should be solid throughout. On the line, McGee will move over to play defensive tackle. Joining McGee at tackle will be Wynne. Kelly will be at defensive end, while Patrick Callahan will be another defensive end. Playing at linebacker will be seniors Claroni and James Doyle.

In the secondary, Greenwich will be led by Olmstead at corner, senior corner Nick Pulitano and weak safety Mike Longo.

“Defense wins,” Albonizio said. “They are going to have to step it up, especially since a lot of the teams that we are going to see this year will be playing spread. We need a better pass rush. I also think the defense will be very good against the run.”

The Cardinals will be strong once again with their kicking game, as senior kicker Jesse Adelberg and snapper Emmett Odegard will be leading the charge.

“We are a very balanced team and we are pretty good in all three phases of the game,” Albonizio said.

This year Big Red will be tested right from the start. Tomorrow, Greenwich will travel up to Tiger Hollow Stadium for a key match-up against Ridgefield High School at 7. The winner of the game could possibly be on the fast track for one of the spots in the FCIAC championship game.

“We need to win this game,” Albonizio said. “It’s as simple as that. We are short a game this year and everything is based on a percentage of our average points. With only nine games, the percentages are that much higher than if we had 10 games. Plus Ridgefield is a good team and we need to beat good teams.”

Albonizio expects Ridgefield’s offense to play well, but their defense will play a big part in how the Tigers will fare.

“They blitz a lot and get to the ball,” Albonizio said. “They move their front quite a bit and we need to be prepared for that. Offensively they have their quarterback back and have some good skilled kids. They aren’t big, but they are very good.”

In addition to the Tigers, Greenwich will play a bunch of tough teams throughout the season. Trumbull High School opens Big Red’s home portion of the schedule on Oct. 5. The Cards will also battle Bridgeport Central, Brien McMahon and Danbury, and host Staples on Thanksgiving Day.

“I think we are going to play well,” Albonizio said. “We scrimmaged some very good football programs this year and I think we have a good group. We have to be ready to play every week. Everybody is going to be a challenge for us.”

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