WEST HAVEN -- What was shaping up to be a dream season for the Staples High football team ended with a nightmare.
Staples' pristine record and its hopes of returning to the state title game were both shattered on Sunday afternoon, leaving Class LL's top-ranked team to piece together where, and how, it all went wrong.
Bogged down by turnovers, penalties and failed opportunities, the team that barreled through every opponent in its path this year met its match as Norwich Free Academy ousted previously unbeaten Staples 30-28 in the LL state semifinals at West Haven's Ken Strong Stadium.
"We made some mistakes today. We just made too many to get over the hump," Staples head coach Marce Petroccio said. "It's just a shame. I can't believe we're putting away the equipment today. It's unbelievable."
Fifth-seeded NFA broke a 21-21 deadlock with a safety on an errant snap in the third quarter and used a Khaleed Exum-Strong 2-yard touchdown to take a 30-21 lead with 9:57 left in the fourth.
Staples climbed to within 30-28 when quarterback Jack Massie hit wide receiver James Frusciante with a 16-yard touchdown pass with 3:15 left. The Wreckers, the FCIAC champs who finish at 10-1, forced a 3-and-out on NFA's next possession. But the ensuing punt went off the heel of a Staples' player, allowing NFA to recover.
"It's awful," Petroccio said. "I'm going to try and pick up some of the greatest seniors we've ever had at Staples High School. But today was not our day.
"We just found a way to lose."
NFA running back Marcus Outlow's 2-yard run on 4th-and-1 at Staples' 46 sealed the win as the Wildcats ran out the clock and will move onto the state final for the second time in program history. The Wildcats (12-0) will face two-time defending champion Xavier (11-1), the No. 3 seed, at Rentschler Field in East Hartford on either Friday or Saturday.
"We know we can play with anybody," NFA head coach Jemal Davis said. "When you play an option team, you're concerned about guys just getting lulled to sleep and (the opponent) making plays. But we thought we could play with them. Obviously we proved that."
Staples turned the ball over three times, including twice in the fourth quarter when it was desperately trying to rally.
The Wreckers moved the ball down to the NFA 3 on their drive following Exum-Strong's touchdown run, but NFA cornerback Airec Ricks batted Massie's pitch out of the air, causing a fumble. The Wildcats pounced on the ball to erase one of the Wreckers' last chances.
"You can't win in a game like this playing the way we played," Petroccio said. "I'm just upset that we waited until today to play the way we did."
With running back Nick Kelly out with a shoulder injury, the Wreckers turned to Patrick Lesch to share carries in the backfield with Joey Zelkowitz. Lesch gained 119 yards in the first half and scored on a 29-yard run.
NFA, however, had plenty of answers of its own on offense.
Quarterback Joey Paparelli gave Staples' defense fits, as he rushed for 110 yards out of the spread option and accounted for two touchdowns. Paparelli handed Staples its first deficit all season with a 1-yard run in the second quarter to put NFA up 14-7. He connected with wide receiver Ryer Caruso on a 38-yard scoring strike just 2:47 before halftime to go ahead 21-14.
"We really thought he was a difference maker," Davis said. "We knew that they were going to key on Marcus, so we did things a little different. But Joey, going into it, I told him, `You're going to be a difference maker.'"
"To knock off the No. 1 team, we knew we had it in us," Paparelli said. "We just went out and got the job done."
Outlow also helped power NFA's ground attack, carrying the ball 11 times for 95 yards. He also intercepted a pass while playing cornerback.
Staples, which came into the day averaging 51 points a game, got off to a fast start and took its opening drive 81 yards on just four plays. Frusciante's 34-yard catch from Massie put the Wreckers up 7-0. NFA, however, responded with a four-play drive of its own and knotted it 7-7 on Ramel Williams' 32-yard run.
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CLASS LL STATE SEMIFINAL
No. 5 NORWICH FREE ACADEMY 30, No.1 STAPLES 28
NFA 7 14 2 7--30
STAPLES 7 14 0 7--28
NFA--Ramel Williams 32 run (Elisa Formiglio kick)
NFA--Joey Paparelli 1 run (Formiglio kick)
S--Patrick Lesch 29 run (Gifford kick)
NFA--Ryer Caruso 38 pass from Paparelli (Formiglio kick)
S--Massie 6 run (Gifford kick)
NFA--Safety on snap into end zone
NFA--Khaleed Exum-Strong (Formiglio kick)
S--Frusciante 16 pass from Massie (Gifford kick)
Records: NFA 12-0; Staples 10-1.