Thanksgiving just wouldn’t be the same for the Greenwich and Staples football teams without a showdown against each other.
Thursday’s 10 a.m. matchup at Staples will mark the 15th straight season the FCIAC rivals will meet on Thanksgiving, with the Wreckers holding an 8-6 series edge.
The Cardinals, however, have earned bragging rights over the Wreckers the past three seasons and are aiming to continue such a trend Thursday in Westport.
The postseason begins Tuesday for the defending Class LL champion Cardinals, yet they understand the significance of their Thanksgiving Day game.
Currently ranked sixth in Class LL, a victory against Staples could improve 8-1 Greenwich’s seeding for the Class LL Tournament, depending on the result of the game involving third-seeded Cheshire and fourth-seeded Southington on Thursday. Greenwich could move up to the fifth seed, but will most likely be on the road in Tuesday’s Class LL quarterfinals.
“Greenwich-Staples has been a rilvary game before it was a Thanksgiving rivalry,” GHS coach Anthony Morello said. “I remember playing Staples when I was on the 2004 team. It was our first game of the season and it was just as much a rivalry as it is now.”
While Greenwich enters Thursday’s game winners of eight of its nine games this fall, Staples has lost five straight and sports an uncharacteristic record of 2-7.
Still, the Cards know they can’t afford to look ahead to Tuesday’s playoff game.
“The first thing I noticed on film watching Staples was that their record is not indicative of their ability,” Morello said. “They have talented kids and they have some very big kids, who are physical, fast football players. They haven’t put it together this season, but they have been in almost every game and they have played some of the top teams in the state.”
Among Staples’ seven losses, three have come by seven points, or less.
“We know they’ve had their struggles, but personnel-wise, they are not a 2-7 team,” said Cardinals junior wide receiver AJ Barber, who has caught 29 passes for 545 yards with 11 touchdowns so far this season. “On our end, we’ve had a great week of practice and we are very prepared for them. We are very excited for all our hard work to pay off and we are happy to be gifted with a spot in the playoffs.”
Greenwich clinched a berth in the CIAC Class LL playoffs with a 27-7 win over visiting Ridgefield two weeks ago. Since being edged by Darien, 27-21, the Cards have won three consecutive games, outscoring the opposition, 134-7 in the process.
Morello’s squad entered the season having graduated a wealth of talent from the team’s dominant, 13-0 state championship squad, but they’ve picked up from where they left off last year.
“I’m incredibly impressed with how far along our team has come and how fast they have done it,” Morello said. “I knew we were going to be a good team down the road, I knew we had a lot of talent, but it’s happened quickly. We’ve played in some very big games and the last one we played, we came out on top. The seniors didn’t have a lot of playing experience going into the season and they have really grown. The whole team has rallied around the captains and the coaching staff.”
Senior defensive lineman Eddy Iuteri is one of the captains that’s paced the squad. He has registered a team-leading seven sacks, while being a force on the defensive line throughout.
“This is one of my favorite games to play, not many teams play on Thanksgiving Day, so it’s cool,” Iuteri said. “It’s a different environment — a Thursday morning game, a holiday, so it definitely hypes me up.”
Morello has seen improvement from his squad in all three phases — offense, defense, special teams. Junior quarterback James Rinello has produced a highly productive season, throwing 28 touchdown passes, while compiling 1,810 yards. Barber, junior Kobe Comizio (32 receptions, 519 yards, six touchdown catches) Mason Muir (junior, 23 receptions, 241 yards, five touchdowns) and senior Matthew Pilc (19 receptions, 189 yards, five touchdowns) anchor the receiving corps, while junior Hunter Clark (260 rushing yards, eight touchdowns) and senior John Alexandre (281 yards, four touchdowns) have led the ground attack.
“Our offense has been very balanced,” Barber said. “Our running game complements our passing game, which is equally as good. James (Rinello) has played very well this season and I could not be more proud of him for that.”
Said Comizio: “We’ve definitely made great strides since the beginning of the season and I think the key has been preparation. “On offense, we have been taking what the defense is giving us, getting those short gains over and over.”
In their Thanksgiving matchup, the Cards will go up against a Staples squad that’s led offensively by senior Jake Thaw, who has sparked the Wreckers at quarterback and wide receiver. Thaw has passed for 531 yards and has 28 receptions for 364 yards. He and junior Henry Beck have also keyed the Wreckers’ running game.
“For Staples’ seniors, it’s the last game of their high school careers, so it is ultimately going to come down to who makes the least amount of mistakes,” Morello said. “I always look forward to playing Staples, it’s my first time playing against Staples as a coach and I’m as fired up as I’ve ever been. It’s an honor to play on Thanksgiving and I know Staples feels that way.
One of the keys of the game will be who controls the tempo, because they can run the ball effectively and have the ability to control the clock.”
The games come up quickly at this point of the season. Greenwich will play Thursday, Tuesday and if they win their Class LL quarterfinal-round game, they’ll suit up again in the semifinals on Dec. 8.
“We have a great weight lifting program that’s been keeping us in shape and keeping us off the injury table,” Iuteri said. “We have been weight lifting all season, prepping our bodies and always doing something physical.”
Added Comizio: “The coaching staff get us prepared each and every game and I trust we’ll be ready to go.”