STAMFORD -- The Trinity Catholic and Darien football teams entered Saturday afternoon's critical FCIAC showdown in a circumstance of role reversal, cast in different parts from what was expected before the season started.
And it was that adaptation that led Blue Wave coach Rob Trifone to a decision he likely would not have otherwise made, one that produced one of the most dramatic finishes of the year and had a domino effect on the league playoff picture.
The victory was the first step in Darien salvaging a season that had veered off track, while dealing a blow to the Crusaders, who came in with the chance to play Thursday night for a shot at sharing the FCIAC championship.
"I had a wheel route and I looked back and saw the ball in the air and tried to make a play on it," Lombardo said. "I knew I had to get the ball, that it was mine, and I took it."
Darien, considered a preseason contender, came into the day 4-3 and looking to play the role of spoiler, a position the Crusaders have found themselves in during recent seasons.
What began as a defensive struggle turned into a frenetic climax, starting with a rare mistake by Peter Gesualdi, whose absence to injury for much of the first half of the season was a reason for Darien's slow start, and whose versatile overall efforts set up the final herioics.
Gesualdi muffed a punt that was recovered by Trinity on the Blue Wave's 28 with 1:03 remaining. But on 4th down, looking to set up John Benalcazar for a game-winning field goal attempt, Darien's Mark Evanchick sacked Danny O'Leary for a 10-yard loss at the Crusaders' 33 with 26 seconds left.
"That's our freshman," Trifone said of Evanchick. "He has played spottedly because he's a freshman. I actually hugged his dad at the end of the game."
Tom O'Neil, the Blue Wave's offensive coordinator, suggested to Trifone that the team take a knee and go to overtime, a strategy he likely would have been amenable to if the season had played out as hoped.
"I said no, lets take a shot down the field and lets try and get in field goal range," Trifone said.
A 32-yard pass to Gesuladi, wide open on the right side, set up Baldwin and Lombardo to share the spotlight.
"Nick Lombardo made a tremendous play," Trifone said. "He was triple covered. I don't how he did it, I'll have to watch the film. In some respects, if we were 7-0 I might have taken a knee there and go into overtime. If you are 4-3 and had a tough year as it is, take a shot."
Trinity (7-1), which held a 7-6 halftime advantage, twice gave up leads in the second half. It retook one at 13-12 on the final play of the third quarter, Danny O'Leary's 63-yard pass to Neno Merritt.
After Baldwin's pass to James Bennett and a two-point conversion put Darien up, 20-13, Shaquan Howsie's second touchdown tied the score at 20-20 with 3:43 left. Despite scoring twice, Howsie was held in check by the Blue Wave, rushing for just 38 yards on 20 carries.
Of the play that cost his team a chance at the FCIAC title, Crusaders coach Pete Stokes said, "I saw Shawn Crowell in good position and I saw Randy Polonia getting over the top. I saw we had more than they had and I saw their kid going into the end zone. I was upset we didn't get our chance but they sat on a screen."
The Crusaders still control their fate for a berth in the CIAC Class S Tournament. They finish the season with games against St. Joseph and Wilton.
"We have to come together," Stokes said. "I still think things are going to go our way. I don't think we got beat. They made a play. That was a good football game."
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DARIEN 26, TRINITY CATHOLIC 20
DARIEN 0 6 6 14--26
TRINITY 7 0 6 7--20
TC--Shaquan Howsie, 2 run (John Benalcazar kick)
D--Peter Gesualdi, 5 run (kick failed)
D--Jay Harrison, 7 run (pass failed)
TC--Neno Merritt, 63 pass from Danny O'Leary (run failed)
D--James Bennett, 10 pass from Henry Baldwin (Gesualdi run)
TC--Howsie, 3 run (Benalcazar kick)
D--Nick Lombardo, 35 pass from Baldwin (kick failed)
Records: Darien 5-3; Trinity Catholic 7-1.