NEW CANAAN >> When Austin Longi, Greenwich’s all-state tailback, walked onto Dunning Stadium in civvies, New Canaan’s football players couldn’t believe their luck.
No, they literally couldn’t believe it.
“At first, I thought it was a bluff,” New Canaan defensive end Zach Allen said. “Because that’s something that Coach (Lou) Marinelli would do.”
It was no bluff. The electric senior, who can score touchdowns on a whim, was out with a shoulder injury for this clash of traditional FCIAC titans.
Yet, the winless Cardinals still gave third-ranked New Canaan everything it could handle before the Rams pulled away for a 35-20 Homecoming victory Saturday.
Mike Collins completed 15 of 30 passes for 260 yards and three touchdowns as the Rams turned a 21-20 fourth-quarter nail-biter into a seemingly comfortable win.
“I was waiting for (Greenwich) to come out after warmups like it was Willis Reed coming out of the tunnel,” said New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli, comparing Longi to the New York Knicks legend’s iconic appearance before Game 7 the 1970 NBA Finals. “I told Richie (Greenwich coach Rich Albonizio), this is a cruel trick you’re playing. But he said, it’s no trick. He’s not playing. And Richie never minces words.
“For Richie and that staff do what they did and almost win the game, is a tremendous credit to him. I feel proud to call him my friend for over 35 years.”
The victory was the 300th of Marinelli’s long and distinguished coaching career, which began in Mamaroneck and Yorktown, N.Y. before settling into New Canaan, where he’s won nine state championships in 34 years. Marinelli is now 300-97-7 as a head football coach.
“I’m in a great situation, I really am, and all this really means is I’ve been in one place for a long time,” Marinelli said. “I come to work every day and I love what I do. I’ve got great coaches, great kids and a great community… though I could have killed a few of them today, but, I’m glad everything turned out the right way.”
Despite high preseason expectations, Greenwich fell to 0-3 for the first time in at least 20 years, if not significantly more. “I’ve never been 0-3,” said Albonizio, who’s been Greenwich’s coach since 1996. “Can’t say that anymore. I just don’t want to be 0-4.”
New Canaan (3-0) had won the previous three meetings, the last two by a combined score of 108-40. Thanks to its defense, the Rams looked poised for another blowout of its rivals.
New Canaan converted a pair of turnovers into touchdowns and had a 21-7 lead at halftime. Included in the carnage was Allen’s 10-yard interception return touchdown, after which he dunked the ball over the goal post and was hit with an excessive celebration penalty.
“One of my NFL heroes is (New Orleans Saints tight end) Jimmy Graham,” Allen said. “I just wanted to do what he did.”
But, Longi or not, Greenwich wasn’t about to let New Canaan steamroll over it like it did during last year’s 66-20 victory at Cardinal Stadium.
Behind a steady serving of junior back Luke Bienstock, who rushed for 123 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries in Longi’s absence, and several clutch fourth-down conversions, Greenwich rallied with a pair of touchdowns to get within 21-20 with 9:33 left.
“He’s a great kid and he works hard,” Albonizio said of Bienstock. “I’m proud of him. I’m proud of all my guys. We had a lot of young players in there today. I was stunned we were still in the game.
“I figure a couple of those runs that Luke had, might have been different,” he added, referring to Longi. “The game might have been different.”
After Matt Marzulla’s 1-yard plunge cut the deficit to one, however, Greenwich missed the extra point.
New Canaan responded with a lightning-quick drive capped by Mike Cognetta’s 14-yard touchdown pass from Collins to make it 28-20.
After Greenwich failed to convert 4th and long near midfield, Matt Cognetta ran 57 yards to put the game away.
“I wasn’t surprised. Greenwich is Greenwich. They’re a great program and have had legends come out of there and Coach Albonizio does a great job,” Allen said. “We just focused, our senior leadership came into play and we got out of here with a win.”
Albonizio believes Longi’s stay on the sidelines won’t be for long. “It’s not a serious injury,” the coach said. “He should be back next week.”
Afterward, New Canaan dunked their coach with a bucket of ice water and played a video on the scoreboard featuring MSG’s Mike Quick, Hand’s Steve Filippone and New York Giants’ John Mara congratulating him on the 300th victory.
|NewCanaan 35, Greenwich 20||1||2||3||4||F|
|No. 3 NEW CANAAN||7||14||0||14||—||35|
NC–Kyle Smith 29 pass Michael Collins (Jack Hoelzer kick)
G–Luke Bienstock 9 run (Soh Nakayama kick)
NC–Michael Kraus 11 pass Collins (Hoelzer kick)
NC–Zach Allen 10 interception return (Hoelzer kick)
G–Bienstock 2 run (Nakayama kick)
G–Matt Marzulla 1 run (kick failed)
NC–Matt Cognetta 14 pass Collins (Hoelzer kick)
NC–Mike Cognetta 59 run (Hoelzer kick)