STAMFORD — The end of an 11-year drought and the coronation of a season four years in the making started 364 days ago, when the Greenwich football team suffered a 31-22 loss to Darien in the Class LL final.
“Last year I saw the seniors crying and I said on the bus to Tysen Comizio ‘We’re never losing again,’ said Gavin Muir, the Cardinals’ quarterback, referring to his starting running back.
Today, back at Boyle Stadium, it was mission accomplished.
With an exclamation point.
In a 48-minute masterpiece that proved both a microcosm and culmination of their season, the Cardinals toppled New Canaan, 34-0, to win their first Class LL title since 2007. With a 13-0 record, they made good on Muir’s promise. They came in a year ahead of the schedule set by coach John Marinelli, who said when he was hired rebuilding the program was a five-year project.
“At the end of the game I was thinking about what that felt like last year, and it feels completely different,” said Muir, who threw for 252 yards and three scores. “I am so happy. Coming out here and doing it in this fashion, the defense getting a shutout, the offense putting up some points, but it was really the defense that set the tone. They were all flying around.”
The Cardinals enjoyed an intrasquad battle of Can You Top This. Which was better, the offense or defense? That had been a parlor game this season, and the answer turns out to be a tie.
Offense will almost always can the most attention, and the Cardinals put on a show, particularly AJ Barber, the son of former New York Giant Tiki Barber but deserving of outright acclaim.
Barber made a name for himself on opening day, when he scored three times in a win over Trumbull. He had 10 catches for 169 yards and a score in the Cardinals’ first two state playoff wins, but today he shined brightest.
Barber caught all three of Muir’s scoring throws, but his best catch was a high ball from the quarterback, which he brought down one-handed. Barber settled himself and threw a 28-yard pass to Hunter Clark that made the score 19-0.
“He has a really good arm,” Muir said. “I think if he wasn’t so athletic he’d have a good shot at playing quarterback here. It worked in practice. Hunter made a good catch. It isn’t as easy making a good catch when no one is around you because you overthink it. Two sophomores stepping up big and AJ’s catch to start the play. I though it might be over his head. I thought it went out of bounds.”
Barber finished with 10 receptions for 157 yards. His second scoring reception was a beautiful 60-yard bomb.
“I’ve been waiting for this all year,” Barber said. “With all the work we’ve done. It feels so good. All the seniors pushed me through hard times and got me to where I am today. The past week this is all I’ve been dreaming of. I just hoped I could play the best I could and that would help the team out.”
The double pass, which the Cardinals successfully executed twice, was fine-tuned in the days leading up to the game.
“I had no idea that would happen,” Barber said. “We practiced it all week and it turned out the way it did. I like to show off my arm in practice. I tell all the coaches I have the best arm on the team.”
The Cardinals first attempted the play during the earlier meeting with New Canaan, a 42-14 win that amazingly was their closest of the season.
“We saw something on film from our first game, just how they played it, and we knew they were going to bite out on quick screens,” Marinelli said.
If you are wondering what happened in between Barber’s first and final games, consider Lance Large, who had eight catches today for 83 yards, Stephen Bennett and Garrett Murphy.
“I think each week someone else steps up, whether it’s offense or defense,” Marinelli said. “I think today everybody stepped up on defense. Gavin does a great job distributing the ball and it showed today. AJ was just the guy who had the big day, Lance had a big day.”
Muir is so consistent that his numbers today are pretty much the norm. And Comizio was overshadowed but he rushed for 149 yards on 22 carries.
Then there was the defense, which kept Drew Pyne, the Rams’ outstanding quarterback, out of his comfort level. Larry DeLuca had two sacks, while Mozi Bici and Emilio Camou added one each. Pyne was hit six times.
“Our emphasis every game is a shutout and to finish with a shutout, we love that,” Bici said. “That’s the way to go.”
The pressure limited Quintin O’Connell, the Rams’ most dangerous player, and the deficit prevented them from giving the ball more than just nine times to JR Moore, who had provided a spark to the running game during the postseason.
Throw in the secondary, led by Ryan Raybuck — Marinelli referred to him as a “dude” — and Hunter Cusimano, and the Rams were held to 131 yards.
“Best defense in Greenwich history, they deserve it,” Muir said.
At the end of the day, Marinelli went across the field to console and accept congratulations from his father Lou, the New Canaan coach.
“I love these guys, I love this team, I don’t want it to end,” Marinelli said. It feels fantastic.”
Bici is one of the most vocal players on the team, the resident comedian, and since August he has harped on the desire to return to the championship game and deliver a different outcome.
Three hundred and sixty four days later, Bici was suddenly at a loss for words.
“This experience, I don’t know if there is a way of describing it,” Bici said.