GREENWICH — The season started with high hopes and the realization that at the very least a step further than last year was realistic and perhaps even expected.
Now, the Greenwich football team finds itself in the Class LL championship game for the first time in a decade after today’s 36-7 semifinal win over South Windsor.
Unlike most construction projects, coach John Marinelli’s five-year plan has been completed 24 months ahead of schedule.
“Who would have though 12 weeks, 14 weeks ago, that we would be in this position at the start of the season?” Marinelli said with a smile before walking out of Cardinal Stadium after a game for the final time this fall. “It has been a special season for us and we are excited to play on.”
All that is separating the Cardinals (12-0) from a perfect season and the No. 1 state ranking is Darien in a final that everyone in Fairfield County has been hoping for. The Blue Wave positioned themselves for a third straight state title with a 27-13 win over West Haven in yesterday’s other semifinal.
“Honestly, we worked our asses off the whole season, the whole offseason,” said Gramoz Bici, the Cardinals’ outstanding pass rusher. “We were in the weight room every day, Saturdays we would go to the field with just the guys and work on agility. I think our hard work got us here.”
The tone was set today on the opening play, when Gavin Muir found Stephen Bennett all alone for a 63-yard touchdown.
“We worked on that,” Marinelli said. “We knew what alignment they were going to have and we had Stevie Bennett in the slot, and he’s probably the most underrated weapon we have. He had a great day.”
Tysen Comizio, who has been fabulous, finished with 170 yards on 19 carries, with two touchdowns. He provided the perfect complement to Muir, who was 19 of 31 for 215 yards and a pair of scores.
Again, the Cardinals found a perfect balance: 31 runs, 27 passes. The offense, after taking a 21-0 lead, was a little less fluid, but that was relative. The 36 points actually were tied for their third fewest of the season.
“We had a great week in practice, we knew what was at stake and we defended our home field like we always do,” Comizio said. “I can’t ask for much more from the O-Line. They were holding their blocks and just did a great job. I have to go thank them.”
The Cardinals’ defense continued to be relentless. South Windsor (10-2) was held to just 182 yards, an average of 2.5 per play. Most of those came on two long completions, one a 38-yard touchdown right before halftime.
“Defense, we just stuck to our responsibilities,” Bici said. “The D-Line set the tone up front. The linebackers filled the gaps and made the plays like the way they are supposed to do. We just played like a defensive unit.”
This season has shaped up like a retribution tour for the Cardinals, who lost four times a year ago. Two of those came against New Canaan and Ridgefield. They avenged those earlier in the season, two games that Marinelli said showcased how Greenwich had made the jump from good to good.
“New Canaan got the monkey off our back,” Marinelli said. “They have been a dominant program in the FCIAC for as far back as I can remember, and the Ridgefield game for us, we hadn’t beaten them in two years. After that we said the sky’s the limit. We finish off the rest of the season and see how we respond in the playoffs and then after that point I think we expected to win every game.”
The Cardinals have. Now come the Blue Wave, who accounted for their other two losses a year ago, the second in the Class LL quarterfinals.
The two teams have not met this year but for the past six weeks seemed on a collision course.
“We love that,” Bici said. “We were mad they weren’t on our schedule and now it’s perfect. I love the way we got to play every team and get all our revenge back from last year. One more to go.”
Marinelli said he has only seen Darien twice so far on tape, against Ridgefield and Staples, a pair of common opponents.
“I know they are probably a little different looking than we’re used to based on recent events but they are well coached,” said Marinelli, referring to the recent arrests that have kept two key Darien starters out of the lineup. “They are used to being in this position as defending champs. It is going to be a very large hill for us to climb.”
The Cardinals have soared them for the first 12 games. Though the stakes will be the highest, don’t expect the mindset to change for the 13th.
“We want to stay optimistic and humble,” Bici said. “We want to go all the way.”