GREENWICH — The Greenwich football team’s road from upstart to frontrunner started a year ago, with a Class LL first-round loss to eventual champion Darien at Boyle Stadium. The Cardinals were the eighth seeds and needed help just to qualify for the playoffs.
“When we got knocked off by Darien I knew we were coming back,” said Tyler Blizzard, one of the stars of a formidable Cardinals defense. “The season ended and in January we were back in the weight room and we knew we wanted to be back in this spot, on top and we’ve achieved that goal. But we still want to get that hardware to hoist up.”
The first step came tonight, with a 27-6 quarterfinal win over Fairfield Prep. The Cardinals sped into the fast lane this fall and in a case of role reversal now find themselves with the target on their backs, ranked No. 1 both in Class LL and the state polls.
They handled the pressure well, though they were unable to shake the Jesuits until a pair of touchdowns 2 1/2 minutes apart midway through the final quarter.
“We know now that motivates us,” Blizzard said of the team’s change in status. “That hypes us up and gets us going. It can always be our last game. Tonight in the locker room that was the most fired up I’ve seen this team. You’re always nervous for big games like this. After that first snap it’s all gone. It’s all mentality after that. Natural instinct.”
And defense. As Greenwich coach John Marinelli said afterward, offense is his team’s weakest element.
The 11-0 Cardinals came in averaging nearly 47 points a game.
“Our defense is playing well,” Marinelli said. “All year long our defense has been solid. Everyone credits our offense but our defense and special teams are our best phases.”
That was evident early on with a goal-line stand that set the tone. Greenwich got the ball first, and quarterback Gavin Muir, playing with an ankle injury sustained five days ago against Staples, completed a 39-yard pass to Stephen Bennett on the opening play. A penalty moved the ball back 15 yards, but Muir on the second play hit Jeremiah Harris for a 53-yard touchdown.
The game soon settled into a defensive battle. Prep (8-3) drove to the Cardinals’ 2-yard line in the second quarter. On fourth down, it seemed like all 11 players snuffed out a run to hold the lead.
“We love teams that run the ball,” Blizzard said. “We have the best front in the state and we can take on any offense that runs the ball on us. I like when they run the ball more. It’s physical, like old fashioned football. Knocking heads and see who’s tougher. We came out on top.”
Prep scored on its next possession, a 12-yard run by quarterback Will Lucas, but missed the extra point.
Zach Moore, the Cardinals’ All-FCIAC kicker, made field goals from 42 and 25 yards, the latter on the final play of the half for a 13-6 lead.
Marinelli said halftime adjustments were made to simplify the running game and accommodate Muir’s injury on passing plays. As the team left the locker room, linebacker Jack Feda approached his coach.
“He grabbed me by the collar and said don’t worry, they’re not scoring again,” Marinelli said. “And he was right. The defense played incredible tonight, special teams gave us good field position, especially in the second half, and the offense played better in the second half.”
Tysen Comizio scored from seven yards out and Muir hit Jeremiah Harris for a 57-yard touchdown on consecutive possessions.
Game. Set. Match.
“Defense wins championships,” Muir said. “When the game is on the line we step up and fire on all cylinders, keep our offense in the game and the momentum flowing.”
Greenwich returns to Cardinal Stadium Sunday to face South Windsor in the semifinals.
A win could bring a final against Darien, making that impetus Blizzard discussed come full circle.
The Cardinals are better equipped this time around. Marinelli pointed that out when it was mentioned how they were a bad matchup for Prep, which unlike most FCIAC teams prefers the ground to the air.
“You don’t see it that often,” Marinelli said. “We’re built for a lot of things. Not many teams have been able to defend our pass rush and not many teams have been able to throw on us consistently enough over the course of four quarters. They come out and they play, they practice hard. It’s a program win.”