Greenwich football ready for Staples in annual Turkey Day game

In what has turned into an annual Thanksgiving Day tradition, the Greenwich and Staples high school football teams will be playing for the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference championship.

Tomorrow morning at 10, Big Red will take to Cardinal Stadium for its last regular season game of the season and will play the undefeated Wreckers.

Big Red advanced to the FCIAC championship game by blitzing Danbury High School, taking a 41-0 lead at the break and cruising to a 54-8 victory Thursday evening on senior night at Cardinal Stadium.

“I feel very good and the kids played well,” Greenwich High School head coach Rich Albonizio said. “We had some misreads in the first half. We had some kids that were open. Sometimes I think we are playing bad and I look up at the scoreboard and it’s 48-0.”

Senior Alex McMurray scored twice in the first quarter to lead Big Red, as he found the end zone from five and 11 yards out, respectively. Nick Schepis netted a 35-yard touchdown run, and Dan Claroni found the end zone on a five-yard run.

GHS senior quarterback Liam O’Neil did his best to impress on senior night, going 8-for-12 for 164 yards and a touchdown. One of O’Neil’s targets in the game was Joe Kelly.

The duo struck gold early in the second quarter, as O’Neil stepped back and hit Kelly in stride down the Danbury sideline. Kelly sprinted the rest of the way to finish the 45-yard touchdown strike.

After Kelly’s touchdown, it was the Greenwich defense and special teams that got into the act, led by Austin Longi. The GHS sophomore stepped in front of Danbury quarterback Elijah Duffy’s pass, eluded two tackles and sprinted down the field for the 46-yard touchdown. Longi wasn’t done. With Danbury pinned deep in their zone and forced to punt, Longi gained possession of the ball and returned the punt 38 yards untouched for the touchdown.

Not to be outdone was senior Taylor Olmstead. With the Hatters threatening to get on the scoreboard, Olmstead picked off Duffy and ran 97 yards down the GHS sideline for the touchdown.

With the victory, Greenwich clinched its spot in the FCIAC title game and a rematch against Staples.

“This is what we’ve been playing for all season,” Kelly said. “We’re playing in the FCIAC finals and it’s going to be awesome. It should be a great game. We need to run all our plays perfectly against Staples and be really good with the passing game and running game.”

Albonizio knows it’s not going to be an easy task to come up victorious against the Wreckers.

“We’ve got to play our best football against Staples on both sides of the ball,” Albonizio said. “Our kicking game has to click, we need to get the ball in our best players’ hands and hold onto it. We also need to be able to keep it out of their hands, and that will be the hard part. These are two good teams and we matched up really well last year and we both have a lot of kids back. It should be a great game.”

Last year, both teams hit the turf in Westport for the Turkey Day game. However, it was the Wreckers who came from behind to edge the Cards 31-27. The loss not only gave the FCIAC title to Staples but it knocked Big Red out of the class LL tournament.

“We’ve had Staples circled on the calendar ever since last year,” O’Neil said. “The day after Thanksgiving, Joe Kelly and I just worked out because we were so frustrated. They are a good team and I know how talented they are, but we’re not going to fear anybody. We really want this game. The rivalry between the two schools is great. There’s no hatred. There’s a mutual respect. We know how talented they are.”

Greenwich has no reason to fear Staples. In winning all eight games so far this season, Big Red has used its high-powered running game, fast receivers, stellar defense and tough special teams to outscore its opponents, 392-104.

“Greenwich has a ton of weapons and could beat you through the air or on the ground,” Staples head coach Marce Petroccio said. “They’ve got numerous receivers that can do damage. Joe Kelly has had an amazing year. McMurray is also having a great year and Bernstein is a great runner and blocker. Of course, Liam has done a fabulous job at quarterback. In my opinion, they have a lot of different ways to beat you offensively.”

Staples will be coming into Cardinal Stadium with a perfect 8-0 record. Like Greenwich, the Wreckers have dominated all of their opponents this season. In those eight games, Staples has rolled off 422 combined points this season. In fact, their lowest point total in any game this season was 49 points.

Just to get to this point, Petroccio knew he needed to improve from the way they finished the season last year. Although the Wreckers advanced to the class LL championship game, they battled Xavier High School and got smashed 42-7.

“I think we learned a lot of lessons from last year’s state championship game,” Petroccio said. “We knew we would have to work hard in the weight room and get bigger and stronger in order to compete with the high level that we want to compete at. The kids did a tremendous job all offseason, and to come out and have the type of year that we’ve had to this point is great. I am so proud of the work the entire group did and I am proud of our senior leadership. It’s been phenomenal.”

Staples will be led offensively by junior quarterback Jack Massie. Throughout the season he has completed 67 passes on 91 attempts for 1,043 yards and 11 touchdowns. This season, the Wreckers have dominated play on the ground, as four athletes have already rushed for more than 450 yards. Senior Joey Zelkowitz leads the way, taking the handoff 51 times for 636 yards, and also has 10 touchdowns on the year. Not to be outdone is fellow senior Pat Lesch, who carried the ball 27 times for 563 yards and added seven touchdowns.

When he’s not passing the ball, Massie is a force running. He’s called his own number 28 times this year and has 491 yards and eight touchdowns. Rounding out the running game will be senior Nick Kelly, who took the ball 30 times for 465 yards and netted nine touchdowns.

Massie’s favorite target this year has been senior James Frusciante, who was on the receiving end of 31 passes and picked up 552 yards. He’s also crossed the end zone eight times.

Lesch is also a threat as a receiver, as he’s nabbed seven receptions for 157 yards and a touchdown.

“Offensively for us we need to move the chains against a very aggressive defense,” Petroccio said. “They are the best defense we’ve faced all year. It’s not an easy task, but we need to figure out how to move the ball. Last year we couldn’t move the ball an inch on the ground. Defensively they are very aggressive. Their linebackrs can run, and they run very well up front. Taylor Olmstead cleans up a lot of what gets through those lines. He’s a very talented player. I think they’ve got it all working.”

When it comes to defense, Staples has been playing lights out. In eight games, the Wreckers’ defense has given up only123 points. A group of six seniors have paced the defense.

“We’re going to need to play a flawless game,” O’Neil said. “We’re going to need to run crisp routes and the windows aren’t going to be that big for us. We’ve got to hit on our open plays and understand that we’re going to be playing at a new level. We have to put together seven or eight play drives in this game to score.”

Lance Lonegran has been leading the way, netting a team-high 63 tackles and three interceptions. Pieter Hoet is also having a strong season, netting 60 tackles and leading the team with 5.5 sacks. The duo of Kevin Kearney and Brian Book each have 45 tackles on the season, while H. Jared Levi has five sacks. In addition to his performance offensively, Nick Kelly has two interceptions on the season.

“We need to contain that offense,” Petroccio said. “They are dangerous and we need to get them to punt the ball a bunch; however, I don’t see that happening. We have to make them earn what they get. When they do catch the ball, they need to be stopped immediately and can’t run around after a catch. We also need to be aware of where Kelly, McMurray and O’Neil are at all times.”

With two evenly matched teams battling for the FCIAC gold, as well as a home game in the upcoming class LL playoffs on the line, this Thanksgiving Day game will definitely live up to its billing.

“Coach Albonizio has done a really good job with those kids and they are obviously well-coached, aggressive, and I’m sure they’ll be excited for this game,” Petroccio said. “Whenever you put in as much work as we do as coaches and players, I think to play Thursday for a conference championship is fun. It’s fantastic that we can play this game on Thanksgiving and it’s exciting. It’s not nerve-racking at all. I know we are very excited to play this game and I know Greenwich is as well.”

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