Academy's rewards: Wildcats outmaneuver No. 1 Staples to gain state championship berth
West Haven - Norwich Free Academy's Joey Paparelli had never seen an option pitch tipped.
Marce Petroccio believes it happened only once in his 20 years as Staples of Westport head coach.
But NFA junior Airec Ricks hoped he could get a hand on an option pitch before Sunday's CIAC Class LL semifinal ended.
Ricks eventually did and short-circuited a potential Wreckers' scoring drive, a momentum-changer.
Ricks later recovered a punt that bounced off a Staples player's heel and allowed his team to run out the clock.
NFA 30, Staples 28.
Don't call it an upset. The fifth-seeded Wildcats (12-0) outplayed the top-ranked team in Class LL at Ken Strong Stadium.
"The thing we have is playmakers," NFA coach Jemal Davis said. "We can mention the common names that we all know, the (Marcus) Outlows, the (Joey) Paparellis, (but) there are some unsung heroes. And Airec is one of those. He's a guy who just plays defense who can play offense for us, but we felt by putting him on defense that he's going to be a difference-maker. And he was."
The Wildcats, ranked eighth in The Day of New London Top 10 state coaches' poll, will play two-time defending state champion Xavier of Middletown for the title at Rentschler Field either Friday or Saturday. The date and time will be announced today.
The No. 3 Falcons clubbed No. 7 Glastonbury 30-13 in the other semifinal. Xavier is ranked fifth in The Day coaches' poll.
Asked if he thought his team would play for a state title before the season began, NFA senior Tuzar Skipper said: "Yes, I believed it. That's what we were talking about all day in the weight room after the season. We'd go in the weight room and lift constantly, just talking about Rentschler Field."
Taking a moment to appreciate what the Wildcats have done in five days: They went on the road Wednesday and kicked around South-West Conference champion Newtown 63-21. Sunday, NFA knocked off the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference champion.
"Nobody gives us a chance because we play in the ECC (Eastern Connecticut Conference)," Davis said, "but we proved it today. Nobody can say anything now."
The Wildcats held a 30-21 lead with over nine minutes left in the game when Staples had a second-and-goal at the NFA 3-yard line.
Quarterback Jack Massie rolled to his left and looked to pitch the ball.
Ricks batted the pitch away. It was recovered by teammate Ryan Stowe at the Wildcats' 23.
"People usually make fun of me for having short arms," Ricks said. "I was surprised (I got a hand on it). I just reached out and tipped it a little bit. It's just an amazing feeling."
NFA didn't score on its next drive, but it took away a great scoring opportunity for Staples.
"That was huge," Paparelli said. "That was an absolute game-changer."
Staples cut its deficit to 30-28 with 3 minutes, 16 seconds left. It then forced the Wildcats to go three-and-out.
On the ensuing punt, the ball skipped across the turf and off the heel of a Wreckers' player.
Ricks recovered the ball at the NFA 45-yard line with 2:39 remaining in the game. The Wildcats proceeded to run out the clock.
Staples turned it over three times. NFA had no turnovers.
"You can't do the things on special teams that we did today," Petroccio said of the Wreckers, "and you can't put the ball on the ground."
Paparelli completed 3 of 7 passes for 87 yards, including a 38-yard touchdown to Ryer Caruso. Paparelli also ran 23 times for 102 yards and a touchdown. Among his runs was a 63-yarder that gave the Wildcats first-and-goal at the Staples 8.
Khaleed Exum-Strong scored on a 2-yard run two plays later to give NFA a 30-21 lead with 9:57 left in the game.
Outlow ran 12 times for 113 yards.
"They're two great football players," Petroccio said. "They did a great job."
Ramel Williams scored NFA's first touchdown on a 32-yard run.