Storm football wins first FAA title in 9 years
There isn't much more that could've happened to make the day as special as it was.
The crowd was big, second only to the Homecoming festivities in September. Life-sized cutouts of the seniors were on display next to the concessions stand just beyond the west end zone, maroon and white balloons tied to them.
In St. Luke's football's dominating 48-20 win over King last Saturday, a culture, quite possibly, was changed. The program had become considerably weak in the past seven years. Many seasons lasted all but two or three games, the final batch of contests in October and November merely becoming an extracurricular activity to bide the time of the fall.
It takes a long time turn that kind of ship around, but when it happens, the coast looks pretty incredible for the foreseeable future. There is irony in the nickname change of this team this year; you could say it crusaded its way out of a storm, really.
With the talent, the right coaching and the right schedule, St. Luke's earned a share of the FAA title by devouring the Vikings. It was the first time since 2001 the team finished atop the league. Family and friends flooded the field as soon as the clock mercifully found triple zeros, and it was as joyous a scene as you may see this academic year in New Canaan.
That's because expectations -- maybe until now -- aren't high at the school. Not for this program. This slow build toward a 6-2 season came from internal momentum and desire.
"Listen, I've been here four years, and freshman year I never thought we'd make it this far," senior Jeff Joseph said. "But coach (Ryan) Brown came in and said we'd win this season. Everyone bought into it. We were in the weight room, doing conditioning drills this summer. People bought into the mindset. That, in total, made us what we are now."
Behind three touchdowns apiece from senior Zaire Reiph and sophomore Noel Thomas, St. Luke's never left any doubt about its ability or intentions on convincingly planting its flag. Reiph ran for a game-high 131 yards on just eight carries; Thomas per-carry average was even better, as he toted the rock just five times and put up 110 yards.
The aggressive, realistic mentality of taking home, or sharing, the league title has lingered, strongly, for quite a while.
"After we beat Hopkins. Hopkins is a big powerhouse. We came in there flying in that game. We tore them up, and that's when the light bulb came on," Joseph said.
Reiph agreed with his fellow senior's sentiment. A pendulum shift came with that 25-7 win at Hopkins Sept. 24.
"It really happened, probably, when we beat Hopkins," Reiph said. "That's when it got serious in everyone's mind. ... It kept our morale up. Our confidence building every game, every week, every practice."
Until this week, when things changed.
"Honestly, we were kind of shaky for this week's practice," Reiph said. "We were kind of nervous coming out here because practice wasn't up to par with the rest of the weeks."
Ironically, the coaches had some butterflies as well, despite King's 2-5 record.
"We didn't have a great week. I think we had a little anxiety," Brown said. "But we came out guns blazing, and you know what, these kids have been doing that for the past three or four weeks, playing like that. That's been our MO: getting out early on teams and don't look back."
St. Luke's opened up with a 35-point first quarter thanks to 40- and 35-yard touchdown runs from Thomas, plus Reiph scoring form 45 yards out on a run while also returning an interception 32 yards for a score.
The game started badly for overmatched King (2-6), who tried -- and failed -- to catch St. Luke's sleeping on the opening kickoff, failing to recover on onside-kick attempt.
Three plays in, the rout was on. Thomas found daylight for his 40-yard touchdown run; with 8:21 remaining, Reiph made it a 14-0 game on his 45-yard burst; with 8:04 left in the first quarter, Adam Connolly tipped a Kevin Peabody pass and Reiph picked it off, trotting in from 32 yards out for the touchdown to make it a 21-0 game.
"What a start for us," Brown said. "We jumped on them early, and what a game. A good job by our offensive line, helping running the ball. ... I was a little nervous, to be honest."
Storm senior quarterback Mac Pivirotto wasn't needed in the blowout; he was 0 for 1 for 0 yards while his rushing attack average 12.1 yards per carry in the first half. St. Luke's finished with 291 rushing yards on the day. Pivirotto, the soft-spoken, military-haircut-look of a player was among the most calm, yet satisfied, in the aftermath. He reflected on the season, his season, that rarely called for him to make a big play, yet even more seldom saw him make a big mistake.
"It was a little bit of a roller coaster when we lost to Rye, but it was certainly something special when we came together and were able to beat Hamden and beat our rivals," Pivirotto said. "The group of seniors we had really brought everyone together with really good unity. We were certainly the best team, maybe not athletically, but with team unity, working together."
Pivirotto was increasingly cushioned by an opportunistic defense. Like on the first play of the second quarter, when Kevin Cross, who had two interceptions, took a 57-yard interception to the house, bloating the lead to 42-0.
That score was quickly followed by a Reiph 44-yard run with 10:54 left in the half, making it 48-0 and prompting St. Luke's head coach Ryan Brown to put in his reserves.
"We're trying to build the thing here, and we've got a great nucleus coming back," Brown said. "We're going to obviously miss the kids were losing tremendously. ... What a year, though. It's been a fun ride coming from 0-1 to start the season down in Long Island to where we are now. All the credit goes to those six or seven seniors."
Cross is one of those seniors who's established something that can certainly be built on.
"We'll be back, ready to go again next year," Brown said.
King got on the board with 9:17 remaining after Caleb Jones busted down the left sideline for a 47-yard touchdown run. Jones, one of the premier rushers in the FAA, finished with 138 yards rushing. The Vikings had a big strike with one minute left, as Peabody connected on a 76-yard touchdown pass to Maximo Reyes. Peabody was 4 for 15 for 124 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.
But the Storm defense forced five turnovers and held the ball for 32 of the 48 minutes. Seniors don't even make up 20 percent of the team, yet this group was able to overcome that low percentage of veterans.
"The players, I love them, man," Joseph said. "The jokes I've had, the pranks we've pulled -- I'll never forget them."
"It brought the best out of me, the team," Reiph said. "It's all one, big, great memory."