CLASS LL FOOTBALL SEMIFINALS: NEWTOWN AT GREENWICH, SUNDAY, 12:30 P.M. Who will fly into final?
Newtown certainly didn’t have much time to bask in the glory of one of the most significant victories in its football program’s history — a 25-15 win against Darien in the Class LL Tournament quarterfinals on Tuesday night.
Soon after celebrating their triumph, which ended Darien’s three-year reign as Class LL champions, the Nighthawks turned the page quickly and focused their attention on their next challenge in the form of Greenwich, the No. 1 team in the state.
“It was a great win for our program and it’s a quick turnaround,” Newtown coach Bobby Pattison said. “This to me is like bonus time. As you can see right now, other winter sports are starting, tryouts are happening and we’re still playing. This is a great feeling, this is what we do everything in the offseason for.”
Sunday’s 12:30 p.m. Class LL semifinals at Cardinal Stadium features second-seeded, 11-0 Greenwich against third-seeded Newtown, which sports an identical record.
Greenwich advanced to the semifinals for the second straight season by upending visiting New Britain, 49-13, in Tuesday’s quarterfinal. Newtown is seeking its first win in a state semifinal game in eight attempts, while Greenwich hopes to continue its quest of winning its first Class LL title since the 2007 season.
“We are playing a team that knocked off the champs, Darien. That was a marquee win, which is something we haven’t been able to do against Darien,” said GHS coach John Marinelli, whose squad lost to Darien in the Class LL final last season. “They had a big win at home against Darien and we know there’s a lot of excitement among their team following that victory. We have to find a way to match their intensity and excitement. They’re going to come in all fired up, so we have to bring that same enthusiasm.”
Three touchdown runs from senior Dan Mason, a defense that forced three turnovers and another effective performance from senior quarterback Luke Melillo paced Newtown past Darien in the quarterfinals.
“Our kids know what they need to do to be successful and they understand that and believe they are just as good if not better than every team we’re going to face,” Pattison said. “And I think that just adds to their confidence and adds to their belief that they can beat anyone. The kids understand that most people are going to pick Greenwich, which is a great team. The people that are picking Greenwich to beat us aren’t playing the game.”
Mason has rushed for 1,299 yards and 30 touchdowns for the season, while Melillo’s totaled 1,474 passing yards. Greenwich counters with Gavin Muir, who is enjoying a sensational senior season, after having a breakout junior year at quarterback.
Following Tuesday’s 321-yard, three touchdown performance, Muir has thrown for 1,999 yards with 24 scoring strikes.
“Gavin is a very good player with a very strong arm,” Melillo said. “He can make plays. It’s a challenge for me to up my game and get better from it.”
The Cardinals have run the ball enough to keep defenses honest, but have mostly thrived through the air in their recent games. Senior Lance Large had four receptions for 114 yards and a touchdown, while senior Stephen Bennett scored on a pair of passes from Muir in the quarterfinals against New Britain.
“We just have to be really prepared to play them,” Large said of facing Newtown. “They just beat a great Darien team, so we know how strong a team they are.”
Greenwich knows it must be especially efficient offensively against a Newtown team that’s adept at forcing turnovers. Junior cornerback Joseph Zingaro has five interceptions, while senior strong safety Joseph Pagett has picked off four passes to lead the Nighthawks’ secondary. The Nighthawks’ defensive line is anchored by Joe Zeller and James Knox.
“They create a lot of problems with their defense,” Marinelli said. “Their defensive line is very athletic, their linebackers are physical and very well-coached and their overall scheme has been fantastic. They have a couple of ball hawks in the secondary and they cover well, forcing you to put the ball in perfect spots.”
Besides hurting the opposition with his arm, Muir’s mobility has surfaced this fall.
As his 25-yard touchdown run off a quarterback-keeper against New Britian indicated, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Muir is adept at gaining yards on the ground.
“Gavin is the captain of the basketball team, he’s a good athlete,” Marinelli said. “He is very capable of pulling the ball down and getting it down field. He sees the field very well.”
The Cards enter the matchup having allowed only 54 points through 11 games, while the Nighthawks’ defense has also been stingy.
“Their defense and our defense are both very tough,” Marinelli said. “I think it should be a lower-scoring game, because at this time of year, defenses have the advantage. They basically, shut down Darien, so we have to figure out how to attack them.”
Two matchups that should be interesting to watch is how each squad’s offensive line, both of which have excelled, handle each team’s quick, athletic defensive lines.
Senior defensive end Mozi Bici has amassed a team-leading 15 sacks, while junior Eddy Iuteri has seven and seniors Jack Feda and Joe Kraninger have 5.5 each. Feda, a linebacker, has made his presence felt in each game, registering a team-best 105 tackles.
“I’ll definitely keep (Bici) in the back of my mind, he’s a great player with a good speed rush,” Melillo said. “It’s going to be challenging for our line but I think they’re going to be ready for that. We’re very excited, we’re expecting a very good team. We have to play our game and play the way we’ve been playing this whole time.”
Both coaches know what their respective squads must avoid on Sunday.
“Turnovers — we cannot turn the ball over,” Marinelli said. “Both team’s defenses have created opportunities for their offense, so we have to protect the ball.”
Said Pattison: “We have to limit mistakes, I think we did that for the most part last game. We won the turnover battle and we capitalized on turnovers. If a big game like this, you can’t afford to make mistakes.”
Ryan Lacey contributed to this article