WEST HAVEN-- The Staples High School football team steamrolled its opposition the first 10 weeks of this season, winning each game by an average margin of 51-17.
And on its opening drive in its Class LL semifinal on Sunday -- a four-play, 81-yard scoring jaunt that took just 1:11-- it appeared the Wreckers would continue to do the same against Norwich Free Academy.
Yet, the Wildcats did not wilt as so many had previously, and because of that, the Wildcats were able to gain a 30-28 victory over the previously unbeaten Wreckers.
"It's very hard (to defend Staples)," NFA quarterback Joe Paparelli said. "But we have athletes too."
Staples moved the ball effectively against the Wildcats, accruing nearly 450 yards of total offense. Yet, the Wreckers failed to score for nearly 23 minutes between Jack Massie's second-quarter, 6-yard run and his 16-yard pass to James Frusciante with 3:15 to play.
"Our coaches came up with a great scheme and we executed it to the best of our abilities," Paparelli said. "We had bend but don't break. They got some big plays, but ... we held it together."
After playing relatively mistake-free football for much of the season, the Wreckers saw the game turn with uncharacteristic mistakes. They were the kind of mistakes that a team can overcome against sub-.500 opponents, but not against NFA.
The Wildcats weren't the type of team that can be pushed around easily.
"We looked at the scouting report and we knew that they were a big physical team," NFA running back Marcus Outlow said. "We felt like we had speed on them. We felt like we had a little bit more quickness and agility. I owe it all to my linemen."
Staples' mistakes included three turnovers-- one of which was a punt that hit a blocker and allowed the Wildcats to recover with 2:39 to play.
With the score tied at 21, a third-quarter personal foul on Joey Zelkowitz sent Staples back 15 yards, stunting its drive. Two plays later a snap over punter Patrick Lesch's head gave the Wildcats a 23-21 advantage, a lead they would not relinquish.
The Wreckers had no answer for the Wildcats' two-headed rushing monster of Paparelli -- the Tim Tebow-clone-- and the heavily-recruited Outlow. The tandem combined for 215 rushing yards, including Paparelli's 62-yard run that set up Khaleed Exum-Strong's two-yard run.
"Every time I step on the field they call me Tebow," Paperelli said. "I guess this is the Steelers win (that the Broncos had in last year's NFL Wild Card Round)."
"They're two great football players," Staples head coach Marce Petroccio said. "That one run (Paparelli) had in the second half was huge."
Exum-Strong's run was also aided by a Staples offsides penalty that set the Wildcats up at the Staples 2.
Staples' lone failing inside NFA's red zone -- on the Wreckers' ensuing drive-- served as a difference maker. Trailing 30-21 with less than 10 minutes to play, Massie moved the Wreckers down the field, using all his will. The senior quarterback rushed for 38 of his 71 yards on the possession, as Staples moved the ball to the Wildcats' 3-yard line after an NFA unsportsmanlike conduct foul.
"I'll take Jack Massie any day of the week running that option," Petroccio said. "He did a phenomenal job all day."
But on Staples' next play, Massie's option pitch was tipped by Wildcats defender Airec Ricks. NFA recovered and sank more than two minutes off the clock.
When the opportunities were there for NFA, they grabbed hold of them and never let go.
"They run (the option) very well and their backs and quarterback have a lot of speed. In the first half, we knew it was going to be a dogfight," said Outlow, who also started at cornerback. "In the second half, we kind of realized what each other was going to do. ... For us to just get that last edge was huge."
In the process, NFA left Staples without an answer.