NEWTOWN — He doesn’t own the gaudy numbers that other passers across the state enjoy, including the one he’ll line up against Sunday in the Class LL semifinals. But when there’s a play to be made, there are few better than ‘Cool Hand Luke’ — as his coach dubbed him — in terms of delivering them.
Newtown senior quarterback Luke Melillo has made one play after another with both his arm and feet for the undefeated Nighthawks (11-0), who will hope to claim a second straight FCIAC victory when they visit 11-0 Greenwich in the semis.
Melillo completed 57 percent of his passes for 1,316 yards, 10 touchdowns and two interceptions in the regular season before helping the Nighthawks topple three-time defending Class LL champion Darien 26-15 in the quarterfinals Tuesday.
“One of the important things you need to look for in a high school quarterback is a kid who can extend plays and make the first guy miss,” Nighthawks coach Bobby Pattison said. “That’s what he does; he’s smart, sees the blitz and he improvises when he needs to. He always keeps his eyes downfield. It’s not just that he’s going to take off and run, he’s going to scramble and find a guy downfield.”
Third down is when the clutch Melillo shines the most. Evading blitzes and delivering strikes to receivers — or scrambling for first downs with his feet — has become a staple of the Nighthawks’ offense. Pattison told Melillo before the season that he didn’t expect 30 pass attempts per game, but instead aimed to convert 30-plus third downs.
With most of the attention paid to running back Dan Mason — who’s rushed for 1,299 yards and eight touchdowns — opportunities for big plays have presented themselves to Melillo. Delivering under pressure is something that will likely have to continue if Newtown has hopes of upsetting the No. 1 Cardinals and standout Gavin Muir.
“Having Dan honestly helps me a lot because they’re mostly focused on him,” Melillo said. “If I have to fake it to him and run off him it opens up holes for me. If they look for me, it helps Dan a lot. We work well together.”
Melillo has added 414 rushing yards and five scores, averaging 7.5 yards per carry. With wide receivers Shea Talbot (21 catches), Joe Pagett (21) and Riley Ward (23) posting almost identical stat lines, the Nighthawks offense is more diverse than it seems at first glance.
“People underestimate his arm,” Pattison said. “I don’t want to type him into a scrambling quarterback because that’s not what he is. He can stand in there and sling it, too; I think he’s one of the best QBs in the state. He still has pretty darn good stats considering we’re a run-first team.”
One of the highlights against the Blue Wave came on third-and-long, when Melillo bought time and threw a strike to Riley Ward to convert. Newtown would go on to score on the drive, pushing its early advantage to 13-0 and never looking back in notching the massive win.
“(Pattison) told me at the beginning of the season the way I’m going to help this team the most is converting on third down using my legs and making plays,” Melillo said. “(On) that play, I just saw an opening, moved left and I just got through and made a play for my team.”
It’s a skill that translates to the baseball diamond, too. Melillo delivered several clutch hits to win games for the Nighthawks, who reached the SWC final last spring before making a run in states.
“He’s just a gamer,” said baseball coach Ian Thoesen, who added that Melillo’s teammates voted him captain for the upcoming season. “He’s the type of kid who wants be in that situation; if it’s a close game he wants the ball. He’s clutch and you have to be a special kid for those moments. … He’s just not afraid. Some rise up, some don’t, and he does.”
WAITING HIS TURN
Melillo entered the season as the guy after spending the previous two seasons learning behind pair of 6-foot-2 signal callers in Justin Dunn and Ryan Kost — who are both playing different positions at the FCS level. Running the scout team against several strong defenses — including those led by Ben Mason — helped prepare the inexperienced senior for varsity action.
With just two pass attempts before 2018, Melillo didn’t take long to get acclimated.
“I waited behind Justin and Ryan, two great quarterbacks who are both much taller than me,” joked the 5-11 Melillo. “Honestly, it got me a lot better because I was running the scout team against (Mason) and all of them. It got me ready for this time.”
Regardless of what adversity comes against the Cardinals — who boast one of the best defensive lines in the state, led by Brown-bound Mozi Bici — Melillo will not be rattled.
“It’s all about being calm in the moment, trusting yourself to know you can get it done and then trusting the guys around you,” Melillo said. “These guys help me along the way, especially the line to buy time and open the holes.”