Two powerful forces will collide on Thanksgiving morning and one will be left standing with a championship trophy in hand.
Before the turkey is carved and the stuffing is served, the Greenwich and Staples High football teams have important business to attend to.
After cruising past their respective opponents the first eight games of the season, Staples and Greenwich will renew their rivalry at Cardinal Stadium on Thanksgiving at 10 a.m. And like last season, much more than bragging rights is at stake. For the second straight year, the Cardinals and the defending FCIAC champion Wreckers will duel for the conference title. The winner will also secure a home game in the first round of next week's Class LL state playoffs.
"Our guys are very excited to have an opportunity to play in the championship game against Greenwich on Thanksgiving," Staples head coach Marce Petroccio said. "When you talk about premier programs in the FCIAC you have to mention Greenwich. For a long time, they were the class of our league and they are still right up there."
"There are a lot of similarities between the two teams," Cardinals head coach Rich Albonizio said. "We both brought a lot of skilled kids back this year and we're both capable of scoring points quickly. It's going to come down to the defenses--who can play defense against the other team's skilled kids."
In a thriller, the Wreckers pulled out a 31-27 win over the Cardinals for their sixth FCIAC title last Thanksgiving in Westport. Trailing 27-17, the Wreckers rallied for 14 points during a 5:39 span to record the victory. Peter Bonenfant's 16-yard touchdown reception with 1:21 remaining gave the Wreckers the FCIAC title and kept the Cardinals from qualifying for the LL state playoffs.
"I thought last year we played real well against them on both sides of the ball," Albonizio said. "It was a very tough loss."
Petroccio left last year's league final proud of his squad's perseverance.
"It was extremely difficult to run the ball against them last year," Petroccio said. "Things looked bleak for us for a while, but our kids stuck with it and kept battling."
Though the Cardinals and Wreckers--both 8-0 on the season--run different offenses, they have produced nearly identical results. Led by senior quarterback Liam O'Neil, Greenwich utilizes a quick-striking spread offense that has amassed 392 points through eight games--an average of 49 points per game. Staples, meanwhile, runs the option behind junior quarterback Jack Massie. The Wreckers are averaging 52 points per game, having scored 49 or more points each week.
Yes, the defenses will indeed be tested Thursday. O'Neil has been razor sharp since returning from an injury that sidelined him the first three weeks, completing 63-of-85 passes for 1,060 yards and 17 touchdowns. Cardinals senior tight end Joe Kelly has been a tough matchup for defenses, catching 24 passes for 602 yards and 12 touchdowns. Senior wide receiver Vincent Ferraro has also been one of O'Neil's favorite targets as well, totaling 17 receptions for 426 yards and five touchdowns.
"We've all been thinking about playing Staples since we lost to them last year," O'Neil said. "I'm already so juiced up for this game, I'm trying not to read too much about it or listen to what people are saying about it. I don't want any extra nervousness for this game. I can't go anywhere without someone asking me about it."
Said Olmstead: "I think our offense is just as explosive as (Staples'). We've really been clicking offensively. Everyone is on board and we're focused on what we're doing on both sides of the ball."
"I'm very impressed with their running game," Petroccio said. "McMurray and Bernstein complement each other very well, Kelly catches everything that's thrown his way and McMurray is dangerous catching the ball out of the backfield."
The Wreckers have caused plenty of headaches with their prolific running game and have effectively thrown the ball out of the option.
"They are very sophisticated in the things they do," Albonizio said. "If you can run the option and throw, you are tough to stop. When a team runs and throws it well out of the option like they do it's tough to defend."
Senior Joey Zelkowitz (51 carries, 636 yards, 10 touchdowns), senior Nick Kelly (30 carries, 465 yards, nine touchdowns), junior Patrick Lesch (27 rushes, 563 yards, seven touchdowns), senior Zach Speranza (52 carries, 345 yards, four touchdowns) and Massie (28 attempts, 491 yards, eight touchdowns) have each powered the Wreckers on the ground.
"It's very difficult for a team to focus on one person, which has helped us," said Petroccio, whose team is averaging 365 rushing yards per game. "Kelly and Zelkowitz have had great years and then you bring in the other kids and our quarterback, who has had a tremendous year running our offense."
Massie has passed for 1,043 yards with 11 touchdowns for the Wreckers. Senior James Frusciante, regarded as one of the premier receivers in the state, has 31 receptions for 552 yards and eight touchdowns.
"Our offense is way more diverse this year because now we have the ability to throw the ball more," Petroccio said. "I'm more comfortable with our passing game than I've ever been with a team."
Staples' vaunted running game stems from its offensive line, which includes seniors Kyle Vaughn (6-4, 280), Chris Speer (6-1, 258), Will Patrick (6-2, 280), Burim Trdevaj (5-10, 250) and junior Nick Ward (6-4, 290).
"They are bigger up front, but defensively, we're very experienced," Albonizio said. "Hopefully we can offset their size on the offensive line with our experience."
Senior Alex McGee (eight sacks), Kelly, junior Jack Wynne (seven sacks) and senior Patrick Callahan lead the Cardinals' defensive line, while Olmstead, sophomore Austin Longi, senior Mike Longo, and senior Shawn Dunster anchor the secondary.