GREENWICH — It was an hour before kickoff Saturday afternoon in the parking lot outside of Cardinal Stadium, and Fran Marinelli was discussing a game that had been among the most anticipated of the regular season: the first meeting between her husband and youngest child.
The so-called Marinelli Bowl was anxiously awaited by everyone except the protagonists, with father Lou’s second-in-the-state New Canaan team going up against Greenwich and son Johnny, a former player and assistant for the Rams.
“Everyone is looking at it like there won’t be any winners,” Fran said, raising her finger to make a point. “We are looking at it as there won’t be any losers.”
Label me a Pollyanna, but following New Canaan’s 24-14 win, the family matriarch called it right. New Canaan (5-0) showed some vulnerability after taking a 14-0 lead less than three minutes in and going into halftime with a 21-0 advantage. It was held to just a field goal in the second half and it would have been interesting to see what would have happened if the Cardinals could have made it a one-score game.
And Greenwich (2-3) easily could have done that, if not for seven penalties and a pair of turnovers, as well as being stopped in the first half on a fourth-down play from the 1-yard line. But when it seemed on the verge of being blown out, the Cardinals showed tremendous heart and went all out for their new coach.
“They played really well,” John said. “They finally put together four quarters. There were some stupid mistakes. I’m damn proud of my kids.”
It was a sentiment shared by the elder Marinelli, whose team had basically steamrolled through the league for the first half of the season.
“We said going in somebody was going to punch us in the face soon and we’re going to see how we react, and I’m happy with the way they reacted,” Lou said. “We played hard, we played all the way through, we matched their intensity and we held on. We just have to go back to work and try to get better.”
Few gave the Cardinals a chance coming in. Those odds were reduced when a screen pass from Michael Collins to Matt Cognetta went for a 50-yard score on the second play of the day, and Kyle Smith was left uncovered for a 37-yard score on the next possession. Collins’ third touchdown pass, from 8 yards to Andrew DeFranco, with nine seconds left in the half seemed an insurmountable margin.
But Greenwich scored on its first possession of the second half, a 29-yard pass from Frank Alfano to Tyler Farris. After Collins threw a 46-yard completion to Peter Swindell two plays later, the Cardinals stiffened and limited the damage to a 32-yard field goal by Swindell, which tied the state record with the 18th of his career.
Collins threw for 369 yards, with Swindell (135) and DeFranco (106) going over 100 receiving.
Greenwich got the final points of the day late in the third quarter, when Luke Bienstock (25 carries, 127 yards) scored from 1 yard out.
“They’re a pretty good team. They came to play,” said Lou, who had seen the Cardinals lose eight days earlier to Trumbull as well as in a win over Central. “Once they started to stop us they started to gain confidence and the next thing you know we’ve got a game.”
Greenwich had chances to get closer, but there were the repeated mistakes that rankle you in the short term but you know are correctable in the big picture.
One telling statistic that kept the outcome in doubt: New Canaan held the ball for 33:35 and had a 69-48 edge in plays. The Cardinals used the Muddle Huddle to both keep the elements up-tempo and control the clock, and ran the ball 48 times.
“We got hit, we realized we’re not invincible like we thought,” the Rams’ Mike Cognetta admitted. “We said at the half we need to play this like any other game, we need to play tougher and to tackle. We hadn’t been punched yet. We had a fairly easy schedule and the challenge was nice. It will help later.”
Lou admitted it was good to have his son, as an opponent this season, in the rear-view mirror.
“This was very hard, very hard,” he said. “I’m glad it’s over and now we can concentrate on the rest of the schedule.”
The only false note came from John when he said this was just another game. He even contradicted himself when, talking about his players, he said, “I’m really proud of them because they know what this is worth to me.”
In the end, there really were no big losers.
Mothers usually do know best.