STAMFORD — John Marinelli will not long forget his first head coaching win, and not just because it was his first win.
He will remember the grit his players showed in a wild 42-38 victory at Trinity Catholic, which is indeed as good as advertised. The tempo of the game had wild swings, starting at a crawl, exploding into a second-quarter sprint, then settling into a second-half chess match.
The storyline coming in was Marinelli the mad-bomber, ready to throw long balls all over Alumni Field in a manner similar to what he did as offensive coordinator at New Canaan. But it was the Crusaders who assumed that role, and it almost won them the game.
Trinity had the ball at midfield in the final minute when a deep pass by quarterback Anthony Lombardi was intercepted by Connor Langan, his second of the game.
“I’ll take it,” Marinelli said with a sense of relief afterward. “It wasn’t pretty. We made a lot of stupid mistakes, a lot of stupid penalties.”
Marinelli smiled when reminded how everyone expected the Cardinals to be the team airing it out. Wisely, and not surprisingly, Marinelli did not force a style that worked at a different school, with different personnel. There were 35 running plays to 32 passes, many of which were short to take what was being given.
“Everyone thinks we just like to throw it deep, but there’s an offensive scheme involved,” Marinelli said. “We thought we could run the ball.
Greenwich did, for 158 yards, led by Luke Bienstock, who carried 15 times for 96 yards and a pair of scores. He had the unsung play of the game, a 13-yard burst on fourth down from the Trinity 29 early in the fourth quarter.
The Cardinals seemed a bit stale at the time, and two plays later quarterback Frank Alfano completed a 15-yard touchdown pass to Joey Longo to make the score 42-32.
“Honestly, I just wanted to get in there, lower my shoulder and keep the drive alive,” said Bienstock, who was sidelined for part of the second half with cramping in his legs. “The offensive line was great.”
Alfano completed 21 of 31 passes for 173 yards, numbers that were telling of the move-the-chains mentality that served the Cardinals well.
The Cardinals had a 13-0 lead just over a minute into the second quarter and seemed headed to an easy win, and the Marinelli storyline that had dominated the preseason looked like it would carry over into the first week of the regular season.
But the Crusaders, a team the rest of the Class S members of the state better hope slips up a few more times against larger FCIAC schools, answered back 36 seconds later when Lombardi hit Johnny Somers for a 78-yard touchdown that made the score 12-8.
That was the beginning of a wild spurt that may not be equalled again this year. The teams combined to score 42 points over the course of 16 plays that lasted just 3:33 and appeared to make Trinity’s lack of lights at the field a potential problem. Lombardi also hit Izaiah Sanders for an 87-yard touchdown in the sequence after he outjumped one defender and cut past another one.
That was just two plays after Greenwich’s Anthony Ferraro, who had a kickoff return for a score at the start nullified by a penalty, went 85 yards following another Trinity score.
Things like this never happened even in New Canaan.
“That was pretty wild,” Marinelli said.
Lombardi was initially disconsolate after the game. Trinity coach Donny Panapada hugged him, told his quarterback he loved him and that the outcome wasn’t his fault.
Which was true. Without Lombardi the Crusaders would probably not have been in a position to win. His 12 completions for 28 yards might not have impressed on the score sheet until you glanced over two columns and see they went for 313 yards. He also rushed for 111 yards and two touchdowns.
Johnny Somers, who was the quarterback before Lombardi transferred in and has shown class by instead making another position a strength, had five catches for 172 yards and two scores. Sanders finished with four catches for 123 yards.
When Panapada was reminded this was not the way the game was played at Trinity during his days as a lineman for the school, he smiled and said, “We’ll be throwing long so get used to it. We’ve got some talented guys on offense.”
Of four sacks, he added, “Our protections need a little work.”
Trinity will be just fine. It says something that being competitive with one of the state’s largest schools is not consolation but expectation.
Similarly, the Cardinals have some things to fix up.
“You can’t give up 38 points and expect to win,” Marinelli said. But it was nice to get the win.”