During a roller coaster-type season, the Greenwich football team battled its way through plenty of adversity and it did so just to qualify for the CIAC Class LL Tournament by coming back to beat Staples on Thanksgiving. Yet the Cardinals couldn’t overcome the daunting challenge of playing without their starting quarterback during crunch time of Tuesday night’s Class LL quarterfinals.
Ahead of host Fairfield Prep by seven points in the third quarter of the quarterfinal-round of the Class LL Tournament, Greenwich seemed poised to increase its advantage by moving the ball into Jesuits’ territory.
Then came a play that changed the game’s momentum.
Greenwich starting quarterback Jack Wilson escaped the pocket, ran up the middle for a first down and gave himself up by sliding to the turf. However, Fairfield Prep defensive back Joe D’Elia dove as Wilson was sliding and hit Wilson on the head with what appeared to be his shoulder, injuring the Cardinals’ junior quarterback.
Greenwich’s offense stalled, committing three turnovers after Wilson was forced to leave the game and top-seeded Fairfield Prep got its powerful running game going on its way to posting a hard-fought 21-14 comeback win before a large, enthusiastic crowd at Rafferty Stadium.
The eighth-seeded Cardinals, who defeated Fairfield Prep during the regular season, 14-7, and qualified for the Class LL playoffs by posting a 34-28 overtime win over Staples on Thanksgiving, finished their season with a record of 7-4.
“This team has had to overcome adversity all season long and tonight was no exception,” Greenwich coach Anthony Morello said. “I’m really proud of how we played. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t enough at the end.”
The Jesuits (10-1) who extended their winning streak to eight games, advanced to Sunday’s Class LL semifinals, where they will host fifth-seeded Shelton, which moved on by ousting Hall in tonight’s quarterfinals, 42-28.
Wilson completed 6 of 10 passes for 96 yards, before leaving the game with what appeared to be a concussion after taking the hard hit with 8:24 remaining in the third quarter and Greenwich leading, 14-7. Ryan O’Connell ran for two touchdowns for Fairfield Prep, amassed 296 yards rushing on 46 attempts. The victors also received key rushing yards from senior quarterback Connor Smith, who gained several first downs on scrambles and designed runs.
“He (Smith) did some good things with his legs,” Fairfield Prep coach Keith Hellstern said. “It took us a little while to get him warmed up, but we did some great things in the run game, which is what we wanted to do early on.”
On the play in which Wilson was injured while scrambling for yards, then sliding to the artificial turf, the Jesuits were flagged for a 15-yard personal foul penalty, giving the Cardinals the ball on the Prep 26-yard line.
“He was hit in the head, at the same time when you’re giving yourself up you can’t do that, it’s a penalty,” Morello said. “The ironic thing was he was giving himself up, which he never does and that’s the play that he gets hurt on.”
“Up seven at the (Prep) 30-yard line, the game plan was working to perfection,” Morello continued. “Everything seemed to be clicking and when you lose a player such as Jack, it makes it really hard to adjust on the fly against an excellent defense and an excellent football team.”
Junior Holden Brown replaced Wilson at quarterback and the ensuing snap escaped his grasp and Fairfield Prep recovered the fumble, halting Greenwich’s scoring threat.
Greenwich’s defense, which was up to the task against the Jesuits’ high-scoring offense, forced the home team to go three-and-out on the ensuing possession, but Fairfield Prep recovered another fumble off a snap on the next drive, then used quarterback Smith’s legs to tie the score.
Keeping the ball on the ground – the Jesuits only passed for 13 yards the whole game – Fairfield Prep methodically entered Cardinals’ territory and Smith capped the scoring march by scrambling for a 23-yard touchdown with four minutes remaining in the third quarter. Aidan Graham’s PAT knotted the score at 14-14.
On the second drive of its next possession, Greenwich fumbled on a running play, with Prep senior Joseph Cardozo pouncing on the ball at the Cardinals’ 25-yard line. Three plays later, O’Connell, a senior, scored on a 4-yard run up the middle, giving the Jesuits a 21-14 advantage with 1:14 left in the third quarter.
The Cards had two more possessions following O’Connell’s go-ahead score. Their second drive of the fourth quarter stalled at Fairfield Prep’s 24-yard line.
Picking up right where he left off last week, when he ended Greenwich’s overtime win against Staples with a 10-yard touchdown run, senior Thomas Foster took Wilson’s handoff on the game’s opening play broke loose up the middle and sprinted down the middle of the field for an 86-yard touchdown, giving the Cardinals a 7-0 lead. Foster rushed for 121 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries.
“I hope he’s proud of himself for what he’s done for this football team,” Morello said of Foster. “He’s been a spark for our football team this whole second half.”
Said Foster, who ran for a pair of scores in last week’s win against Staples: “It was incredible making the playoffs with these group of guys, it’s something I’ll never forget. I wouldn’t want to be here with anyone else.”
Fairfield Prep’s first touchdown came on its second possession, with O’Connell bulling his way into the end zone from 1-yard out, making it 7-7 at the 2:29 mark of the first quarter.
“Greenwich challenged us early, they scored on their first offensive play, that’s a shock to your system and it’s something that I think some teams would back away from, but our kids knew they would be challenged to begin with and they kept grinding away at it and we were able to persevere,” Hellstern said.
The Cardinals regained the lead at 14-7 when Wilson threw a 35-yard scoring strike to senior wideout James Wailgum, who got behind the secondary, with 29 seconds to go in the second quarter.
“Wilson was outstanding he was throwing the ball well he was running the ball well,” said Morello, whose squad held a 14-7 halftime advantage.
Foster sparked Greenwich’s running game with 121 yards on 10 carries. Junior George Vomvolakis added 25 rushing yards, while senior Chason Barber paced Greenwich’s receivers, catching a pair of passes for 44 yards. Senior Charlie Dixon had 24 receiving yards and junior Logan Galletta had a reception for the Cards.
“The season was a roller coaster, we had our wins, we had our losses, but everyone rallied and we made the playoffs,” said Barber, who will continue his football career at Brown University next year. “But it was a great season, I think we’re setting the underclassmen up for success and there is a bright future for Greenwich football. Tonight, the momentum changed once our quarterback got injured, but everyone played their hearts out.”
Like the team’s first meeting on Oct. 2 at Cardinal Stadium, both squad’s defense was sound throughout.
Senior linebacker Clayton Griffin registered 6.5 tackles for Greenwich, while junior Matthew Trimmer had six tackles and senior linebacker Luke Vivier had four tackles. Senior Michael Sinisi, one of the Cards’ captains, recorded a sack and a tackle for a loss.
“I’m proud of our guys, we came out and fought,” said Sinisi, who fought his way through injuries to his thumb, hand and shoulder to get back on the field. “We just got an unlucky break there when Jack went down and that’s what ultimately changed the game. We kept battling, but unfortunately, we didn’t play well enough today. There’s no blame game, we lost as a team.”
Fairfield Prep applied some pressure on Greenwich’s quarterbacks, especially in the fourth quarter.
“Our defense buckled down, stood the test and were able to answer,” Hellstern said. “It’s a lot of what we’ve done during the year. We’ve had some great victories, we’ve had some very tight games. We’re a young group, but we’ve battle tested and this adds to that resume.”
The matchup marked the final game for Greenwich’ senior captains: Sinisi, Tyler Cusimano, Zach Mantione and Luke Ware.
“I’m so proud I’ve never been prouder of anything in my life,” Mantione said. “They put it all on the line. We bonded well as a team – like no other.”
Indeed, when Morello reflected on the game and season, he knows his squad gave optimum effort.
“I’m grateful for the season, coming out of COVID, a lost season, you don’t know what to expect,” Morello said. “But you try to instill the values and legacies of the program. We made the playoffs, we stood toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the state. Some would argue that we had that game fully in our grasp before that injury occurred. I don’t think there’s any doubt to the fans on both sides that we deserved to be here and we’re right where we need to be for next year.”