Westport News sports editor Doug Bonjour surveyed two head coaches from common opponents of Staples and Greenwich this season, Brien McMahon's AJ Albano and Danbury's Dan Donovan, and asked them to identify some key objectives for the two finalists heading into Thursday's FCIAC championship game.
COACH: Rich Albonizio (16th year)
RECORD: 8-0, 8-0 FCIAC (No. 3 in Class LL)
HISTORY: No program has reached the FCIAC championship game more often than Greenwich, which will be making its second straight appearance and 22nd overall. The Cardinals are 12-9 all-time in the final, including 2-1 against Staples, with wins over the Wreckers in 1974 and 2007, and a loss in 2011. The Cardinals have won more titles in the last 10 years (five) than any other program in the conference.
THREE KEYS FOR GREENWICH
1. Keep the quarterback upright -- Greenwich's offensive line has afforded senior quarterback Liam O'Neil plenty of protection in the pocket this year, helping fuel a unit that's scored at least 40 points five times. Senior running back Alex McMurray leads the team with 17 total touchdowns and 570 rushing yards, and has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the steady presence of the Cardinals' front five. The Cardinals have plenty of weapons on offense to complement McMurray, including senior running back Mark Bernstein (477 rushing yards, seven touchdowns) and senior tight end Joe Kelly (team-leading 602 receiving yards, 12 touchdowns), but will combat a Staples defensive line that has a reputation for swarming to the ball a bit faster than others.
"To try to slow (Staples) down, you've got to pick your poisons," Danbury head coach Dan Donovan said. "They may, they may, be able to be pushed around by a extremely strong offensive line, but you have to be better than their's because that's what they go against in practice every day. I don't think you're going to find an offensive line better than Staples.'
Seven different players have accounted for Staples' 17 sacks on the season. Senior defensive end Pieter Hoets (6-2, 225 pounds) leads the team with 5.5 sacks.
"I don't think Greenwich has seen a defensive line as quick, maybe as big," Donovan said, "but not as quick as Staples is."
2. Exploit a (rare) mistake -- The Wreckers are discplined on both sides of the ball and rarely miss an assignment. They've stayed away from allowing the big play and instead have baited opponents into throwing 11 interceptions. Senior linebacker Lance Lonergan leads the Wreckers with four takeaways, intercepting three passes--two for touchdowns--and recovering one fumble. For the Cardinals, O'Neil has moved the ball through the air almost effortlessly at times, passing for 1,060 yards and 17 touchdowns after missing the first three games with a broken index finger on his throwing hand.
"Not even just their rush, but their actual pass defense with their corners and safeties and linebackers is very good," Donovan said of Staples. "It may come down to a double move or a blown coverage that if the quarterback can pick up, it's a touchdown. They don't make mistakes--neither team does."
3. Attack, attack, attack -- The Cardinals run a defensive scheme predicated on pressure and always look to create mass confusion in the offensive backfield. Senior defensive end Alex McGee (team-leading eight sacks) and junior Jack Wynne anchor the line in a 4-4 unit that's aggressive and a step ahead of most opponents in both speed and physicality.
"That's what Greenwich is known for. They play aggressive, they play hard," Brien McMahon head coach AJ Albano said. "They hit hard, they block hard. I know they're not going to back down."
The Cardinals have surrendered just 13 points a game--four times holding the opposition to single digits--and will be challenged to win the battle at the line of scrimmage and disrupt Staples' explosive read-option offense.
"With Greenwich shooting the gaps a little bit more, they might try to disrupt things in the backfield," Albano said. "There's a couple different ways you can play option, whether you could slow-read it or you try to attack it. ... I would think they would try to get to that mesh point as soon as possible, and try to disrupt some reads and disrupt the exchange."
COACH: Marce Petroccio (20th year)
RECORD: 8-0, 8-0 FCIAC (No. 2 in Class LL)
HISTORY: Rich in tradition, Staples will make its sixth appearance in the FCIAC championship game in the last nine seasons. The Wreckers are 6-3 all-time in the final--1-2 against Greenwich with a win in 2011 and losses in 1974 and 2007--and will try to become the conference's first repeat champion since the Cardinals in 2008.
THREE KEYS FOR STAPLES
1. Let them run -- The Wreckers have an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions and look to get their playmakers in open space in their read-option offense. With swift-footed Jack Massie manning the controls at quarterback, the Wreckers' offense is motoring like a runaway train, averaging a state-leading 52 points a game.
"Their game speed is at a different level that I haven't seen many times, if any," Brien McMahon head coach AJ Albano said. "They just play very, very fast."
Running behind an offensive line that's overpowered defenses, the Wreckers have broken games open in a hurry with 29 touchdowns of at least 20 yards and 14 scores of at least 50 yards.
"They run it about as perfectly as anybody at this level," Albano said. "Massie knows when to give it, when to pull it and when to pitch it. They have some explosive weapons on that side of the ball."
The Wreckers are averaging nearly 12 yards per carry and have a wealth of options to turn to on the ground. Senior running back Joey Zelkowitz leads the team with 636 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, while backfield mates Patrick Lesch, Nick Kelly, Zach Speranza, and even Massie (491 rushing yards, eight touchdowns), have helped pace the rushing attack.
"Formationally, they give you a lot of different sets that are hard to prepare for," Albano said. "If you're not lined up correctly, they're going to recognize it and they're going to exploit it."
2. A road frequently traveled -- The closest Staples came to being tested this season was way back on Sept. 14, when it ran off 21 unanswered points in the second half to break open a 14-14 game with St. Joseph. The Wreckers have not trailed at any point this year and have led by at least 21 points at halftime seven times. Although the Wreckers' starters have been able to enjoy most fourth quarters from the comfort of their own sidelines of late, they're no stranger to a playoff atmosphere. Most of them played in last year's FCIAC title game, a 31-27 win over Greenwich, and in the Class LL state championship.
"This FCIAC stage is not going to be something they haven't seen before," Danbury head coach Dan Donovan said. "That Thanksgiving Day game is not going to be bigger than something they've seen before. I think their experience might be the difference in this."
3. Screen the pressure -- Massie has been sacked just four times this season behind a physically imposing offensive line that includes five starters weighing over 250 pounds. On the rare ocassions when Massie does see pressure from the defense, the Wreckers are adept at countering it with their screen game. Massie (1,043 passing yards, 11 touchdowns) also has a playmaking threat on the outside in senior wide receiver James Frusciante, who leads the team with 31 catches for 552 yards and eight touchdowns.
"I think they should be able to do it," Donovan said of protecting Massie. "If it gets out of hand, they'll just throw screens. That's their answer for it. ... That will slow down your pass rush."
Compiled by Westport News sports editor Doug Bonjour
email@example.com; 203-255-4561 ext. 114; twitter.com/DougBonjour