Semifinal Sunday: NFA wrecks Staples’ mojo, Fairfield County silenced


Jared Levi and the Wreckers walk solemnly off the Ken Strong Stadium field following their stunning 30-28 loss to NFA in the Class LL semifinals

With big smiles, massive hugs, and emitting a cacophony of whoops and hollers that echoed across the state, the entire football team gathered in the southern end zone of Ken Strong Stadium for a photo. It could have been West Haven in August, gathering for its annual team photo.

But this was December. These were the state playoffs. And the photographers weren’t contracted shutterbugs from the local studio, they were equally happy and proud parents and inquisitive newspaper reporters. This wasn’t West Haven.

This was Norwich Free Academy.

Jubilant. Victorious. Posing below the scoreboard, emblazoned on it, their birthday gift to coach Jemal Davis.

NFA 30, Staples 28.

By all accounts, it was a stunning result.

This was supposed to be one of, if not the best Staples teams in the Marce Petroccio era. It was supposed to be invincible. It was going to take care of these upstarts from way out east and get a championship rematch with mighty Xavier.

Instead, junior back Marcus Outlow, quarterback Matt Paparelli and a massive and determined NFA front held the FCIAC’s best team in check, took command in the second half while Staples wilted with several critical second-half errors.

There was an errant punt that resulted in a safety (and gave NFA the lead for good), an option pitch at the goal line that was batted away and recovered by NFA with 7 minutes remaining and then, just when it looked as if the Wreckers would make a valiant comeback, the punt that fatefully bounced upfield and off a Staples player and recovered by NFA.

Staples’ offense, which didn’t score less than 42 points throughout the entire season yet uncharacteristically committed three turnovers and had just over 100 yards in the second half, never saw the ball again.

Their dreams were crushed.

“It’s awful,” stunned coach Marce Petroccio said. I’m going to try and pick up some of the greatest seniors we’ve ever had at Staples High School. But today was not our day.

“We just found a way to lose.”

NFA’s dreams lives on.

In retrospect, everything we heard about NFA ever since it hammered Stamford 51-0 back in October, and everything we saw from the Newtown game turned out to be spot-on. They were big, they were talented, they were determined.

“We know we can play with anybody,” Davis said.

NFA's Marcus Outlow falls through the Staples defense in a 30-28 upset victory over the Wreckers in the Class LL semifinals (Photo: Mike Ross)

And, my oh my, junior Marcus Outlow is legit.

Outlow has been a key player for NFA since getting significant time on the 2010 semifinal team that lost to Trumbull. This is confirmed: He has “full-ride” offers from Alabama, Oregon, Ohio State… you name it, since impressing a ton of scouts at an NUC combine over the summer. At 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, “he definitely passes the eye test,” said MSG Varsity’s Mike Quick.

But it was quarterback Joey Paparelli, who carried the Wildcats in the second half. He scrambled for first downs. He found receivers, particularly Khaleed Exum-Strong, for third-down conversions. Staples’ strong defense eventually found a way to contain him, giving the offense a chance to rally. But that wasn’t until the Wildcats

had 9-point lead. His long run set up the eventual clinching touchdown late in the third quarter.

“To knock off the No. 1 team, we knew we had it in us,” Paparelli said. “We just went out and got the job done.”

Staples was just as good as NFA, but on this afternoon, in the state playoffs, it had to be perfect. It wasn’t.

Junior Airec Ricks made the biggest play of the game when he batted away an option pitch from Jack Massie at the goal line and recovered by NFA. Later, with Staples in full rally mode, he recovered the punt that bounded up the turf and hit Staples captain Kevin Kearney in the leg.

“You can’t win in a game like this playing the way we played,” stunned Staples coach Marce Petroccio said. “I’m just upset that we waited until today to play the way we did.”

So there will be no rematch. NFA ran out the clock to set up a date with No. 3-seeded Xavier at Rentschler Field. Staples, which has seen more than its share of crushing, state playoff losses of the last six years, goes home empty handed.

“Like I said earlier in the week, we were underestimated because we play in the Eastern Connecticut Conference,” Outlow said. “But people look at it and say, oh your conference is weak, blah, blah, blah. But we just come out here and we try to pursue what our coaches meant for us to do, we came out and we executed as well as we can, and it showed on the scoreboard.”

Their talent and their efforts are now preserved forever, in record books and — more importantly for these players — in photographs. A moment frozen in time.

Fairfield County: Denied.

Michael DiCosmo picks up a fumble that he raced 76 yards for a touchdown with less than a minute remaining vs. Windsor. It turned out to be New Canaan's last gasp in a 27-21 loss.

Super Sunday was not a good day for Fairfield County football teams.

First Staples went down in a gutwrenching finale. Then New Canaan lost its first state semifinal game since 2005.

Those losses erased the last FCIAC teams from state championship contention — something that’s never happened in the 36-year history of the CIAC playoffs.

Weston and Masuk lost.

No one from Shangri La will be playing for a state title.

Just like Staples, New Canaan came oh, so close.

For the second straight season, New Canaan found itself down big. But visions of a season ago began dancing in the Rams’ heads in the fourth quarter. Cole Turpin’s long catch set up a Louis Hagopian touchdown run to cut a 27-7 defcit to 28-14.

Trying to run out the clock, Robert Quinn Fleeting fumbled and Michael DiCosmo returned it 79 yards with just under a minute remaining.

Not again? Nope. Not again. Windsor corralled the onside kick and hung on to win 27-21, ending New Canaan’s string of state championship games at six.

“It just goes to show the game’s never over,” Windsor coach Fleeting said. “The difference from last year is we didn’t panic. The kids have grown up.”

“They’re just a gutsy group of kids,” New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli said. “They never gave up. We didn’t play well. We lost to a better team. They’re a team that deserves to go play in a state championship. We did not play well enough.”

Weston's Zach Cannon attempts to bat the ball away from Berlin's Tyler Bouchard in the Class M semifinals at Bunnell.

Tyler Hassett and Weston played valiantly, but fell to No. 2-seeded Berlin, 21-7.

Down 14-0 after a half, Hassett pulled the Trojans within a touchdown. Later, with the score 21-7, just as the Redcoats appeared they would put it away, Erik Dammen-Brower picked off a pass and was headed for the end zone.

But he was chased down, fumbled the ball back and the Trojans were eventually eliminated. Berlin advances to face No. 4-seeded Hillhouse, a 48-26 winner over Montville, in the state championship. This is Hillhouse’s sixth state championship game in school history.

Little Weston, meanwhile, finishes 9-3, including a state playoff victory. This was their best season in 23 years.

“Our kids fought hard,” Lato said. “I’m proud of their effort.”

“This isn’t the finish line. We want to get here every year. It’s always toughest the first time you do something and now we’ve done this and got this far. The underclassmen gained experience and got to see what it’s like to play in playoff games. I’m really proud of what this team has done for Weston football.”

As for Masuk, they were never in it vs. top-seeded and top-ranked Hand.

Hand took its time getting onto the field, but took very little time dismantling Masuk 42-23.

And this wasn’t even that close. In a heavy fog, Caleb Ewald took a flat pass from Brendan Bilcheck and raced 74 yards for a touchdown on the game’s first play. “They throw a screen, the kid that was supposed to cover it never saw the ball in the air,” Masuk coach John Murphy said. “But they took it to us on both sides of the ball in the first half.”

Hand rolled to a 35-0 halftime lead, piling up over 400 yards of offense to reach its second straight state championship game.

This was Hand coach Steve Filippone’s 200th career victory. “I didn’t win a game,” Filippone said. “I’ve never won a game. … I really take no great satisfaction in it. I take satisfaction in that this team has won 26 games in a row.”

Only some heroics by outstanding senior back Thomas Milone, who returned a free kick for a touchdown, caught a touchdown pass and also had an interception, kept the score from looking too lopsided.

But his career, which included a state championship in 2010, now shifts to baseball season and Hand will face Windsor in the state final.

“I’m proud of my kids,” Murphy said. “After what we lost last year, nobody said they could get back here. I’m proud of them.”

Newsome, Chargers roll into final

Ansonia was our only regional team to reach a state championship game.

As expected, there was no doubts about this one.

Newsome ran for 215 yards and four touchdowns and, in the process broke former Ansonia standout back Alex Thomas’ career state record of 115, as the Chargers reached their third-straight championship game and 27th overall with a 41-13 victory over Hyde.[CPTV VIDEO]

The Chargers, who have won a state-best 27 consecutive games (Hand has won 26 straight), will play North Branford in the Class S championship.

The T-Birds hammered Woodland 62-27 to reach their first state final since 2001.

S-C-C! S-C-C! S-C-C!

Guess which conference will be playing for three state championships this weekend?

Look no further than Al Carbone’s official Southern Connecticut Conference Twitter account. The Commish’s nimble fingers quickly let everyone know that his league is dominating the proceedings thus far.

Xavier (11-1) will play for its third consecutive Class LL title. Hand (12-0) will play for its second consecutive Class L title. And now, joining the fray, is Hillhouse (10-2), which will be playing for its second Class M title in three years.

After spending the last two championship weekends on the sidelines, the CCC has two representatives. Windsor (11-0) plays Hand in Class L; Berlin (11-1) plays Hillhouse.

The ECC went 1-1 in the semifinals, sending NFA (12-0) to take on Xavier in the Class LL final.

The NVL-Pequot challenge ended 1-1 for each league. Ansonia (13-0), the NVL’s final representative, takes on North Branford (12-0), the Pequot’s last representative.

Overall, the NVL is 3-2 in the state playoffs. The Pequot is 3-3.

And of course, the FCIAC (0-2, 2-5 overall) and the SWC (2-3) will send no state championship representatives.

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Sean Patrick Bowley