NEW CANAAN – Two indisputable facts emerged from tonight’s season opener:
One, after St. Joseph’s thrilling 38-35 victory over New Canaan, Lou Marinelli will have to wait at least a week before becoming the all-time winningest football coach in the state. And two, this 2017 edition of the Cadets is not going to be intimidated.
St. Joseph came to Dunning Field knowing it was playing the state’s No. 1 team — and a four-time defending state champion — that was determined to get its long-tenured coach his record 323rd career victory, at a setting where visiting teams rarely win. That’s all.
So what happened?
The Cadets marched down the field and scored less than three minutes into the game and continued from there to take a 21-0 lead midway through the second quarter. No, the Cadets were not exactly overwhelmed.
Better yet, after New Canaan roared back by scoring touchdowns on five consecutive possessions to take a 35-31 lead, the Cadets quickly shook that off as well. On a third-and-10 play from the New Canaan 46 with 4:57 remaining in the fourth quarter, Cadets quarterback David Summers calmly set himself in the pocket, where he had already been sacked eight times, before connecting with Jared Mallozzi for what ended up as the winning score.
“It was quite an accomplishment for our kids,” St. Joe’s coach Joe Della Vecchia said. “To come in here and play the No. 1 team in the state and do what we did, well, I am very proud of them.”
The game was billed as a battle between two state finalists. New Canaan won the Class L championship last year while St. Joseph lost to Hillhouse in the Class M final. That was nine months ago, but Della Vecchia says it still stings.
“After last year, we came in here with a chip on our shoulder,” he said.
That probably helped explain St. Joseph’s fast start. But how about the next 19 minutes when the Rams, led by sophomore quarterback Drew Pyne, outscored his team 35-10?
“I remember how they made a great comeback to beat Darien a few years ago,” Della Vecchia said. “I had a feeling it might happen, but it happened so fast.”
The Cadets marched right down the field to take a 7-0 lead when Summers, who finished 28 for 55 for 314 yards and four touchdowns, hit Jesse Bike for a 5-yard touchdown less than three minutes into the game.
On the Cadets’ second possession, Summers capped a 12-play, 76-yard drive with a stunning 22-yard scoring strike to Mallozzi on a fourth-and-12 play.
In the second quarter the St. Joseph special teams got into the act. Darren Warren blocked a punt deep in New Canaan territory and teammate Davee Silas fell on it for a shocking 21-0 lead six minutes before halftime.
“We didn’t play well enough to win, especially early,” said Marinelli, who remains tied with Ed McCarthy with 322 victories. “We made enough mistakes for a whole season tonight (15 penalties, two turnovers).
“But,” he continued, “I told them at halftime to remember what UCLA did against Texas A&M. I’m proud of the way they kept fighting.”
As Della Vecchia and so many others on hand Friday anticipated, the Rams and Pyne rallied. Pyne, who started out 1 for 7 passing for six yards and an interception, completed three of four passes on the Rams’ 72-yard drive, finishing it off with a 5-yard toss to Quintin O’Connell. Pyne finished 15 for 28 for 167 yards.
But the Cadets controlled the ball for the final 4½ minutes (15 plays) of the half and took a 24-7 lead into the locker room when Luke Kirby booted a 19-yard field as time expired.
Pyne tossed touchdowns to O’Connell twice in third quarter before running in from 10 yards out with 2:44 remaining in the period to give the Rams a 28-24 lead.
It looked as if the Cadets were ready to recover from that, though, when Summers and Phil Pasmeg hooked up on a 23-yard touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. But on the first play of New Canaan’s next possession, Rams running back Owen Shin (12 carries for 124 yards) took a handoff on a draw play and rumbled 68 yards giving the home team a 35-31 lead with just over 10 minutes remaining.
After a couple of penalties backed the Rams up and into punt formation, the Cadets took over on the New Canaan 46 with 5½ minutes left to play. And after two incompletions, Summers found Mallozzi (10 receptions for 153 yards and two scores) for the go-ahead touchdown.
New Canaan had two more possessions but could only gain one first down. The Cadets had withstood the comeback, and everything else thrown their way.
“Summers had a great game, he was hit almost every time he tried to throw,” Della Vecchia said. “And Mallozzi is a phenomenal player.”
“Mallozzi is a special player but they have other kids, too, who can play,” Marinelli added. “Our problem, though, was that we have too many kids who haven’t been in a fight like this.”