Football: Barnabei has excelled at quarterback for Wilbur Cross… in his first year playing the game

Wilbur Cross quarterback Sal Barnabei winds up for a pass against West Haven earlier this season. Barnabei, a senior who had never played football until this year, has thrown for 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns against just five interceptions and leads the Governors in to a massive SCC showdown vs. Hand in New Haven Saturday at noon.  (John Vanacore/For Hearst Connecticut Media) 

NEW HAVEN 

Sal Barnabei removed his hands from his pockets, grabbed a football and lined up behind his Wilbur Cross center. He drops back and starts slinging rainbows.

Zing to receiver Jaykeen Foreman for a deep strike. Zing to Noah Washington for another. Zing to Kwane Taylor. It’s practice, so not all the balls are caught. But they look good. More importantly, Barnabei looks good. He’s sharp and knows precisely where his receivers can catch his strikes.

Barnabei should be: He’s put in all the work. He has the ability. And this is fun. Man, is it a whole lot of fun.

He loves it. This is what the Wilbur Cross senior has wanted to be for as long as he can remember: Quarterback on a football team.

Wilbur Cross quarterback Sal Barnabei looks to pass vs. Cheshire during a 25-26 loss at the Maclary Complex in October. (Photo Dave Phillips)

Better still, he’s the quarterback for a winning football team, playing in big games with his friends and teammates. Wilbur Cross is 6-2 and about to embark on what coach John Acquavita calls “the school’s biggest game in its 24-year history as part of the SCC.”

And Barnabei’s been big part of it. He’s completed 54 percent of his passes for over 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. He’s only thrown five interceptions. 

Cross plays its final home game at high noon on Saturday vs. perennial powerhouse Hand. A victory would propel the Governors into a Thanksgiving showdown with Hillhouse for an outside chance at the school’s first playoff berth since winning it all way back in 1984.

Exciting stuff, to be sure. “This is a huge game,” Barnabei said after recent practice. “Senior day… This is make-or-break for the playoffs. We have a huge shot here. We’re going to work hard in practice and try to get the win.”

Heh. The kid is so polished, he even sounds like a pro.

He quite literally has all the right moves.

Funny, because until this season he’d never played in competitive football game his entire life. Not Pop Warner. Not freshman. Not junior varsity.

Not… one… snap.

What?

“I’m a baseball player,” he says, sheepishly.

So?

“Well, my father didn’t want me to play football because he didn’t want me to get hurt,” Barnabei explains.

Ahh. That’s understandable. Barnabei actually is very good baseball player. He plays shortstop and pitches for Wilbur Cross. He has a .351 career batting average for the Governors, with 26 RBIs, 24 runs and six extra base hits in two varsity seasons and a 

He and his older brother, Tino, once helped Annex Little League beat mighty Fairfield American in the sectional playoffs. So, Sal has always been good at baseball.

Wilbur Cross’ Sal Barnabei unleashes a pass vs. Amity while lineman Nico McFadden blocks during an earlier game this seas (Photo John Vanacore)

But when he would attend Wilbur Cross football games in fall, he just couldn’t shake the dream of one day playing alongside his friends.

Acquavita and his staff knew of Barnabei. They knew he was a great athlete. Barnabei even played hoops for a while. “He’s probably one of the better athletes in the building,” Acquavita said. “So we’re like, Sal, you have to come out for football.”

But Barnabei says his father, Bob, just wouldn’t budge. No matter how many times he’d ask. 

“Every year, I’ve been asking him to play,” Sal said. “Every game I’ve come to, just the environment. I just wanted to be on the field, playing football.”

It all changed last winter. Dad finally had a change of heart. 

“He was like, it’s your last year, I’m not going to hold you back from playing,” Sal recalls. “So if you want to play, go out there and do it.”

And so when baseball season ended, there was Barnabei, dressed to the nines in football gear. “We couldn’t believe it,” Acquavita said. 

Barnabei always wanted to play quarterback, but Cross already had Terrell Watts as the incumbent. So Acquavita and his staff put the 6-foot, 185-pound senior in at linebacker. Because he could throw a baseball, they penciled Barnabei in as Watts’ backup. “We never thought of Sal as a starter,” Acquavita said.

Then, suddenly, Watts transferred to Hillhouse and Cross and its talented senior class was going to be without a quarterback.

Now, Barnabei had to cram a lifetime’s worth of quarterback knowledge and skill in just three months before the season opener at Foran.

So Acquavita and his assistants went to work on their first-year senior. “We kind of accelerated the process,” the coach said.

Kind of? Try ludicrous speed.

Big play after play for @Wilbur_Cross_HS on their way to a shutout victory over @East_Haven_FB. #cthsfb pic.twitter.com/o7FMIU2yP2

— CT Sports Now (@CT_Sports_Now) October 27, 2017

Barnabei was bombarded with the playbook, immersed in passing leagues and quarterback camps. It helped that Cross had two former New Britain standout quarterbacks on its staff: Chris Roberts and Rafal Garcarz, who went on to play at SCSU and CCSU, respectively. Roberts was All-Northeast Conference as a starter for the Owls. “That was a huge advantage for us,” Acquavita said.

As it turned out, Barnabei was not just a quick learner, but an eager one. And he soaked it up like Neo having jujitsu and kung-fu uploaded into his brain in The Matrix.

It wasn’t hard, but it was a lot to learn. My coaches were really good with me,” Barnabei said. “They taught me a lot. And still are.”

“We poured it all in there and he kept wanting more,” Acquavita said.

But none of it was real until Barnabei took his first, official football snap vs. Foran in the season opener.

Nervous, Sal? You had to be.

“Yeahhh,” he said. “The first drive… wasn’t a good drive.”

He was sacked for a loss. Later, a Foran lineman broke free around the left end and blindsided him during a bubble screen — his first real football hit. “Right in the back,” Barnabei said. “I got a little pain right there. It was… unexpected.”

He laughs. “But after that I settled into the game. Next drive came out a little better. It was my first touchdown pass (a 17-yarder to Taylor). That was great. It was a great feeling.”

He pauses, as if to relive the moment again.

“First touchdown I’d ever thrown.”

Wilbur Cross senior Sal Barnabei stands on the Barbarito / Marone Athletic Complex field just after a recent practice. In his first year playing football, the Cross senior has been outstanding at QB. (Photo Sean Patrick Bowley)

Barnabei wound up completing 10-of-15 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns — including a 46-yard strike to Washington. He was intercepted once.

The next week vs. West Haven, he threw for 124 yards on 13-of-21 passing and two touchdowns, but Acquavita says he and assistant Paul Morrell didn’t really unleash Barnabei, due to his inexperience. “We probably should have,” Acquavita said. Cross lost 47-20.

It was the Xavier game, a 14-7 upset at the time, where Barnabei came into his own. He threw one touchdown pass, a short route Dyonte Howard took 74 yards for a touchdown and played mistake free, finishing with 166 yards on 11-of-18 passes. He also attempted a pair of quick kicks. One went for 82 yards. 

“He threw a better ball, he didn’t panic in the pocket and we were like this kid could be a dude,” Acquavita said. “He could be the guy.”

Barnabei said the team’s confidence skyrocketed. “It proved we could play with those teams, a team like Xavier,” he said.

Cross had one other hiccup. Cheshire took a three touchdown lead and nearly ran the Governors out of the Maclary Complex. But Barnabei shook of a nightmare first half and nearly engineered a second-half comeback in an eventual 35-26 loss. He threw for 267 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

The next week, he torched East Haven for another 267 yards and four touchdowns. After that, Cross beat Notre Dame-West Haven with Barnabei throwing three more TDs.

Sure, Barnabei’s surprised at how well he’s played. “I really can’t put it into words,” he said. But he credits everyone else for his success. That big and physical offensive line — anchored by UConn commit Travis Jones, Rickqueal Warren — his vast array of offensive weapons and his coaches. “I really couldn’t have done it without them,” he said.

Meanwhile, Acquavita’s been making calls to prep schools and colleges that might be interested in an athlete whose resume includes picking up and excelling at quarterback on a whim, all while wondering what Cross could have done had he got his hands on Barbabei sooner. 

“He works hard. He never misses a practice. He lets it go if he’s made a mistake. He wants to get better,” Acquavita said. “There’s been no hard part. He’s a pretty smooth, coachable kid. Every other night, my staff and I are thinking, imagine if we had this kid as a freshman?”

Barnabei says his proud father hasn’t missed one of his games.

“He loves it,” Barnabei said. “After every game he’ll say, ‘Sal, you had a great game. He’s actually said, you know, I wish you played earlier. That’s my fault. But go out there and do what you gotta do.”

Playoffs or not, Sal’s football career at Cross will be ending soon. But his youngest brother, Antonio, is now a budding quarterback for the Governors’ freshman team.

Think he’ll stick with it, Sal?

“I hope so.”