GREENWICH — The pregame speech prior to the Greenwich football team’s most important regular season game in recent memory was not delivered by its coach, John Marinelli, who relinquished the stage to a group that played together for the Cardinals 10 years ago.
That season ended with league and state titles.
There was no mention, Marinelli said, of New Canaan, the Cardinals’ opponent today.
“They were talking about the experience of being a Greenwich football player and what it means to play in big games,” Marinelli said. “To bring back that atmosphere.”
With one mighty swoop, the Cardinals boosted their tradition and took down New Canaan with a 36-21 victory that down the road may be recalled as the official stamp on a new era for the storied program.
On a day with numerous angles, perhaps the most surprising event was a non-event: the Cardinals didn’t rush the field after the game, though they had gone 0-6 against New Canaan since 2006. There were a few raised fists, but the players quickly lined up to shake hands. An outsider might have thought the outcome a draw.
The emotions the Cardinals were shielding from the public, well, that was a different story.
“It was a great win but we had to stay calm,” Robert Lanni said after what was a complete effort. “This was the outcome we expected. I think we played our own game tonight and we responded to adversity well. Respect. We try to keep it classy.”
Lanni’s sentiment was shared on the sideline. This is a team reboot still in the formative stage, but ripening quickly.
“We thought we were a better football team,” Marinelli said. “I think they’re a fantastic team. From offense, defense and special teams, all three phases, I thought we were a better team going in. We pinned them deep. That’s probably the strength of our team, the special teams.”
The Cardinals capitalized on field position to take a quick 22-0 lead after just 13 minutes and twice answered touchdowns by the Rams that cut the deficit to eight points in the second half with scores of their own.
The last was a 72-yard scoring run by quarterback Gavin Muir with 1:47 left.
“The mood was we had something to prove,” Lanni said. “We had to prove we could beat good teams and face tests and overcome challenges.”
Muir was efficient for the Cardinals (4-0), completing 18 of 27 passes for 170 yards and three scores.
An exchange of punts after each team had possessed the ball left the Cardinals on the New Canaan 35. Four plays later Muir found Jael Negron in the right corner of the end zone from 21 yards for the early lead. They got the ball back again on the Rams’ 34, with Tysen Comizio then scoring from 2 yards out.
The Greenwich defense, which has been terrific but overshadowed, again caused a three-and-out. Muir connected with Henry Saleeby on a 22-yard pass for a score and again on a trick 2-point conversion.
The Cardinals had 22 points and the Rams did not yet have a first down.
“That quick lead was great,” Lanni said. “Special teams got us great field position and that seems to be the trend these first four games. And the offense and defense did a really great job of stepping up.”
New Canaan (3-2) suffered a season-opening loss to St. Joseph in part because of mistakes, mostly penalties. Rams coach Lou Marinelli said earlier in the week his team would have a similar outcome with the same disarray, and he proved correct.
The Rams committed 16 penalties for 106 yards. Many of them were repeated false starts that are puzzling. But two nullified touchdowns. After Owen Shin scored from 1 yard out with 4:41 left in the half, Griffin Arnone returned an interception for an apparent score 40 seconds before halftime that would have shifted the momentum. But New Canaan was called for roughing the passer.
New Canaan was trailing, 22-14, after quarterback Drew Pyne alertly scored from 3 yards out when both teams thought play had stopped and he ran into the end zone.
The Rams then blocked a field goal and Pyne hooked up with Patrick Metzger on what would have been a 66-yard touchdown. Whistle. Illegal shift.
“I feel embarrassed because I’m the coach,” Lou Marinelli said. “The way we played today, we let a team — hey, he did a great coaching job and those kids outhit us, they did a tremendous job today. Something has got to change. There’s something wrong. There’s something we’re not doing right. I’m not taking anything away from Greenwich, but I don’t understand how we can get so far behind so early. Either not ready to play, I don’t know. “When you’re playing a good team if you make mistakes like that you can’t win.”
The he Lou Marinelli was talking about, of course, was his son John, and we have made it this far without even referencing The Marinelli Bowl, because the teams have finally become the main protagonists. But for the record, this was the third meeting between father and son, and father’s series lead has been halved to 2-1.
John Marinelli said before kickoff that the week leading up to the meeting has become easier, but game day is still difficult.
Neither coach was asked much about the familial component afterward. Right now the Rams are very much in danger of not even getting the chance to play for what would be a fifth straight state title. Pyne completed 20 of 31 passes for 280 yards, and the effort outdid the numbers because Pyne was under constant pressure.
The Turkey Bowl against Darien could now be must-win for the Rams to get to December.
The Cardinals have catapulted themselves into not just the playoff but championship conversation as well, though John Marinelli will make sure those words are read and not ingested.
“It’s a great win for the program,” John Marinelli said. “Whenever you beat a team like New Canaan it is a great win. We still have a lot of work ahead of us, we’ve only played four games, we have six left. We don’t have time to celebrate this one. We’ve got to get back to work on Monday. We have to bring them down a notch but this is a great win.”
Before leaving the stadium, Lanni verbalized the perspective his coach wanted the team to carry into the locker room.
“It’s been an inspiring day,” Lanni said. “A lot of former players came back to talk to us and to win in front of a great home crowd today and end the drought is an amazing experience.”