Staples prepares to face Greenwich for FCIAC football title
Coach: Marce Petroccio (19th year)
Record: 8-0, 8-0 FCIAC (No. 2 in Class LL, 135.00 playoff points)
History: One of the conference's most storied programs, Staples will be making its fifth appearance in the title game in the last eight seasons and first since 2009, when it defeated Bridgeport Central. The Wreckers are 5-3 all-time in the conference championship -- 0-2 against Greenwich (1974, 2007) -- and have won more titles in the last decade (two) than any program aside from the Cardinals (five).
WHEN STAPLES HAS THE BALL: Armed with shifty playmakers at the skill positions, both in the backfield and on the outside, the Wreckers prefer to spread opposing defenses out, affording sophomore quarterback Jack Massie an array of options. A first-year starter, Massie has been near-flawless in engineering a speed-oriented attack that's averaging close to 36 points a game, but could be without one of its top dual-threats. Junior running back Joey Zelkowitz, one of the team's leading rushers, sustained a shoulder injury in a win over Fairfield Warde on Nov. 5 and his status in unknown, which potentially leaves junior Nick Kelly and senior Jon Heil shouldering a greater workload on the ground against one of the conference's most physical defenses. Brien McMahon head coach AJ Albano believes Kelly can be a weapon for the Wreckers, calling the 6-foot-2, 185-pound back "just as good as (Zelkowitz) and maybe even more of a dual-threat," especially if given the ball in open space.
"Kelly can run the ball and catch the ball. They'll line him up in the backfield and they'll line him up as a slot receiver, so you always have to know where Kelly is because he can do so many different things," Albano said.
Albano explained that Staples utilizes its speed with quick screen passes, and both jet-sweep and option runs to the outside while trying to contain defenses. That scheme has worked countless times this year for the Wreckers, the fifth-highest scoring team in the FCIAC (281 points), but now plays into the teeth of a defense that's littered with athletic, sideline-to-sideline linebackers in Shane Nastahowski (6-foot-1, 225 pounds) and Kyle Camacho (6-foot-1, 240 pounds).
"I think of Staples as this small shifty, speedy type of outside team that if you get their athletes in space, they can really hurt you. Playing Greenwich, their two inside linebackers, Nastahowski and Camacho, and their defensive line, they're as good as anybody we saw all year. It's almost like their strengths and weaknesses match up," Albano said, adding, "(Greenwich) can get pressure from their front four and their linebackers can shed blocks, obviously that will disrupt anything."
WHEN STAPLES IS ON DEFENSE: Athletic and opportunistic are just two of the many characteristics that have been attached to Staples' defense in 19 seasons under Marce Petroccio, the second-longest tenured coach in the FCIAC and one of its most savvy defensive minds. The Wreckers are loaded with talent both in the front seven and in the secondary, with senior linebacker Robbie Wolf and defensive backs Greg Strauss, a junior, and Kelly, anchoring a unit that routinely pounces on the opponent's first mistake. Albano recited a laundry list of times the Wreckers broke open close games this season by forcing a late turnover -- notably a come-from-behind 24-21 win over McMahon on Oct. 1, with the key play a fourth-quarter interception by Strauss.
"They wait for you to make a mistake and they capitalize," Albano said. "Whoever makes the first mistake is the team that's going to be fighting the uphill battle because both teams are well-coached, very talented."
Albano acknowledged Greenwich's passing game as a threat, but he believes the Cardinals' main objective on offense is always to spread out the defense to open holes for their bulldozing back, Nastahowski.
"Nastahowski is as physical a player that I've seen in a long time," he said. "Stopping him is going to be a tall task."
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X-FACTORS: If the Wreckers are unable to mount an effective ground game, Albano believes there are options downfield to counter with. Wide receiver James Frusciante, a 6-foot, 170-pound junior, delivered a number of clutch plays in crunch time this year, including a 44-yard grab on the final drive against the Senators to set up a game-winning field goal.
"I'd consider him a very good deep threat. They will throw the ball up to him. He's got great speed so he's able to get down the field real quick and run under the ball," Albano said. "He can also make moves after the catch."
COACH: Rich Albonizio (15th year)
RECORD: 8-1, 8-0 FCIAC (No. 7 in Class LL, 111.11 playoff points)
HISTORY: The modern day benchmark for success in the FCIAC, Greenwich will be making its 21st appearance in the title game and first since 2007, when it defeated Staples 37-0 -- the largest margin of victory in league history. The Cardinals are 12-8 all-time in the conference championship -- 2-0 against the Wreckers (1974, 2007) -- and have won more titles in the last decade (five) than any other program in the conference. No team has appeared in the final more times.
WHEN GREENWICH HAS THE BALL: For the prototypical explosive offense, look no further than the Cardinals, who racked up an FCIAC-best 337 points and feature one of the state's true game-breaking threats on the ground in senior Shane Nastahowski. A 6-foot-1, 225-pound power running back who has drawn interest from a number of Division-I college programs, Nastahowski torched defenses this year to the tune of 947 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns, and is the centerpiece of a crowded, yet potent backfield that's become public enemy No. 1 for opponents. Danbury head coach Dan Donovan expects Staples to have trouble containing the Cardinals' ground game -- especially out of the two-back formation with isolation and power runs -- simply because Nastahowski and Co. are just that good.
"Their run game is going to cause a little bit of a problem for Staples, I think," he said.
Sharing the workload on the ground in the Cardinals' spread offense is junior Alex McMurray, a faster option and another weapon that Donovan believes Staples must account for. Senior Mike Daly and junior Mark Bernstein are also part of the running back rotation.
"If you shut down No. 48 (Nastahowski) and key on No. 48 too much, all of a sudden they'll have him block on a counter and hand the ball to (McMurray). All of a sudden you're staring at No. 48, staring at No. 48, and the next thing you know, McMurray pops out of the backfield," he said.
Armed with an aerial attack anchored by junior quarterback Liam O'Neil (6-foot-1, 185 pounds) and senior wide receiver Joel Arroyo (team-leading 21 receptions, 329 yards) to keep aggressive defenses honest, Greenwich is scoring at a clip of 37 points a contest this year. Donovan explained that the Cardinals' balance on offense, coupled with their sound execution, makes them particularly difficult to game plan for.
"When you get on the field and you have a game plan that you think is going to work and should work, it's not about the X's and O's. It's about how well they execute," Donovan said. "Just like Staples, they don't make mistakes when they're executing -- or very limited mistakes. They do an excellent job of knowing what to do and where to go. You try to blitz them or stunt them and they still know where to go."
WHEN GREENWICH IS ON DEFENSE: As overpowering Greenwich is on offense with a ground-and-pound run game, it's equally aggressive on defense, with Nastahowski and senior Kyle Camacho (6-foot-1, 240) roaming the field at linebacker. The Cardinals held opponents to single digits in scoring more often (five times) than any other FCIAC team, and will be against a Staples offense that features a mobile quarterback, sophomore Jack Massie (6-foot, 170 pounds), and is gifted with versatility at the skill positions. The Wreckers have thrived, scoring 36 points a game, but will match strength for strength with the Cardinals.
"They know that if you have a good athlete, one guy might not be able to catch him or bring him down. What they'll do is make him turn back to the other guys and cut back in," said Donovan, who witnessed that athleticism first-hand as Greenwich put the brakes on one of the FCIAC's lethal ground duos -- Danbury seniors Austin Calitro and James "Speedy" Harrington -- in a 17-7 win over Danbury on Nov. 10. "You can't dance around too much with that defense. That defense is coming after you. And they're coming after you fast."
Donovan believes that a key aspect for Staples on offense will be the health of junior running back Joey Zelkowitz, who sustained a shoulder injury in a win on Nov. 5. His status for the title game is unknown.
"If he plays, that could change the game around in (Staples') favor," Donovan said.
X-FACTORS: The Cardinals have proven to be reliable on special teams and capable of breaking a big return. Junior kicker Jesse Adelberg has converted 39 of 42 extra-point attempts and the Cardinals have blocked five punts this season -- two of which they've returned for touchdowns. Arroyo has one kick return for a touchdown, while Staples' Nick Kelly, a junior, has displayed a penchant for the game-changing play on special teams.
"We tried some things on kick returns that we thought might be able to trick Greenwich a little bit, but they're so disciplined. They stayed in their lanes and they did their responsibilities," Donovan said.