MERIDEN — Erick Perino booted a 42-yard game-winning field goal as time expired to lift reigning Class LL champion Greenwich to a 30-28 Connecticut High School Football Alliance victory over Maloney on Friday night at Falcon Field.
It was Perino’s first-ever field goal attempt in varsity action. The senior was on the JV team last season and didn’t earn the place-kicking duties until the preseason.
“I was confident; I trusted my team and I trusted my kicking, and as soon as I did that I knew it was going to go right,” Perino said.
“As soon as it went through, I was in shock,” the kicker continued. “I turned around and I saw the sideline get happy. I was like there’s no way that went through. It was just unbelievable.”
Greenwich entered the game ranked No. 1 in the GameTime CT media poll and Maloney entered No. 3. The game certainly lived up to the billing.
It was a painful loss for the Spartans as the clock was stopped with 0.5 seconds left and the ball at the 25-yard line.
“It’s devastating, obviously,” Maloney coach Kevin Frederick said. “We had them dead to rights and needed to get a first down at the end to put them away and just didn’t do it.
“It’s disappointing. We battled. We aren’t happy with keeping it close. We wanted to win.”
It was the home opener for the Spartans (2-1) and the crowd at Falcon was massive.
They saw a thriller. Maloney, down 27-14 in the second half, erased the 13-point deficit when Maloney junior QB Ethan Nedinsky tossed his third TD pass of the night, a 10-yard strike to Donte Kelly, with 3:56 to go in the game.
When Ayden Carrero booted though the extra point, the Spartans were up 28-27.
After the go-ahead score, the Maloney defense turned Greenwich over on downs, but the Spartans couldn’t get a first down to seal it. The Cardinals got the ball with 1:10 to go with no timeouts left at their own 26-yard line.
Greenwich QB Rocco Grillo (17-for-24, 188 yards) engineered the game-winning drive, going 5-for-5 on the possession.
Brandon Auguste (6 catches, 47 yards) made three catches on the drive and, after the third, stepped out of bounds at the Maloney 25 with 0.5 seconds to go.
Perino, a left-footed kicker, took took aim from the right hash mark and booted it just inside the right upright.
The kick erased a brilliant second-half comeback by the Spartans, who started the season with road wins over East Hartford (55-38) and Newington (37-0).
In the early going, both teams had nine-play drives that resulted in fourth-down touchdowns that had the score tied 7-7 after one quarter.
The Maloney defense forced Greenwich to a 3-and-out on the opening drive, and a 23-yard punt return by Kelly had the Spartans starting their initial drive at the Cardinal 48.
Maloney covered the 48 yards in nine plays, the last a 12-yard slant pass from Nedinsky to Jesus Martell on 4th-and-goal with 5:41 left in the first quarter.
That duo was spot-on all night. Martell finished with a career-best 135 yards on sevens catches. He scored two TDs.
“I’ve been doing this all year long; it started out in the passing league and it’s carried over into the season,” Martell said. “I’m just going to keep putting in the work and make myself and teammates around me better.”
Greenwich responded with a big play on third down — a 48-yard bomb from the lefty Grillo to Gavyn Gennarelli. That play seemed to get the visitors cooking.
Like Maloney’s first scoring drive, Greenwich’s came down to fourth down. Grillo popped home a one-yard TD run to cap a nine-play, 75-yard drive to tie the game 7-7 with 44 seconds left in the first quarter.
Greenwich forced the Spartans to go three-and-out on their second drive of the game. Nedinsky was taken down on a strip sack and Maloney eventually punted.
The Cardinals scored on the ensuing next drive to take their first lead of the game, 13-7, with 8:04 left in the second quarter. Running back Ian Kim capped the 8-play, 49-yard drive with a six-yard TD run.
Kim was called into action after Greenwich starting running back George Vomvolakis left the game after the first Cardinals’ drive with an apparent injury. He did not return.
Maloney answered with a long scoring drive of its own. Again, it was Martell, who leapt up for two straight catches.
The first was a 25-yard grab on 3rd-and-18. After the catch, the Spartans rushed to the line and Nedinsky found Martell down the left sideline for a 26-yard score to put the Spartans up 14-13 with 5:11 to go in the second quarter.
Greenwich answered with an 11-play, 65-yard drive late in the second quarter to take a 20-14 halftime lead. Kim scored on a 1-yard TD run up the middle with 29 seconds to go.
On the previous play, facing a 3rd-and-12 from the Maloney 13, Kim broke tackles behind the line of scrimmage to get to the Maloney 1 and set up the score.
A roughing-the-passer penalty on Maloney with two minutes to go on a 3rd-and-14 incomplete pass also kept the Cardinals’ drive going.
“We made too many penalties in the first half,” Frederick said. “That was disappointing. We didn’t play our best game. We picked it up a little in the fourth quarter, but before that it really wasn’t our best game. We beat ourselves. I thought we did a good job against them stopping the run. We just fell apart.”
Greenwich had 205 yards in the first half and Maloney had 148. Neither team had a turnover in the opening half.
Kim had 14 carries for 63 yards in the opening half with two scores. The Spartans held him to seven carries for four yards in the second half.
Both teams started the second half with punts.
Early in the third quarter, facing 4th-and-4 at the Greenwich 48, the Spartans opted to go for it and came up inches short on a pass from Nedinsky to Kelly.
Greenwich took over at the Maloney 45. The Maloney defense held and forced Greenwich to punt at the Spartan 39. It was a good one, pinning the Spartans back at the 5-yard line.
There, Nedinsky was picked off by Greenwich's Noah Steel for the first turnover of the game. The Cardinals took over at the Spartan 12 and, on the first play, Auguste ran in on a jet sweep to put Greenwich up 27-14 with 4:48 to go in the third quarter.
Maloney needed a spark and got it from Marquis Warde, who returned the ensuing kickoff 45 yards to the Greenwich 30. A horse-collar penalty tacked on 15 yards to the play and Maloney was in business at the Greenwich 15.
Boom, boom: Nedinsky connected with Ward for 14 yards on the right sideline and Zakkai Moore punched it in with a 1-yard TD as Maloney closed to within 27-21 with 3:50 left in the third.
Maloney defense held and Nedinsky (20-for-36, 243 yards) engineered the best drive of the night, an 11-play, 93-yarder that earned the Spartans the 28-27 lead with 3:56 left in the game. Nedinsky found Kelly (6 catches, 40 yards) for the go-ahead score.
“We were feeling great after that,” Kelly said. “We felt we had it. We made a couple of mistakes at the end and we will fix those mistakes and be a better team.”
Martell came up clutch on the lengthy drive. He had a 16-yard grab on a 3rd-and-15 and then a 33-yard reception on a 3rd-and-12.
“That was my best game,” Martell said. “Last year, I was just a defensive starter and now I’m a two-way starter. This was a good step for me.”
On Greenwich’s ensuing possession, Donald Highsmith made a big tackle on third down, and a sack by Trevoy Marrow turned the Cardinals over on downs with 2:14 on the clock.
With the Cardinals using their timeouts and a badly timed offsides penalty by the Spartans, the ball went back to Greenwich a minute later, setting up Perino’s heroics.
“What a win,” Greenwich coach Anthony Morello said. “This is by far the craziest finish that I’ve been a part of in all of my years of coaching.
“We are fortunate and excited to be on the winning side of things,” Morello added. “Maloney played an excellent game and showed grit. Their stars came out tonight and made huge catches. But for our team to be down a point and at our own 30 with two minutes and no timeouts was something to see.”
Morello pointed out the Cardinals were down a point because of a missed PAT by Perino in the first half.
“For that guy to get a chance at redemption and succeed under these circumstances is impressive, and I’m so happy for him,” Morello said. “We have this big calls sheet with so many plays, but on that final drive I took off the headset and threw the call sheet away and we played backyard football. We run two minute drills every day in practice; we simulate it as much as we can. We were trying to conserve time.
“Rocco came up big in that moment. We knew if we got the ball somewhere near the 25-yard line we had a shot.”
Greenwich opened up with two home wins over Fairfield Prep and Stamford, both by two touchdowns.
Greenwich and Maloney were both 11-2 last year. Maloney won the Class L crown in 2021 and fell short to New Canaan in 2022 just before Greenwich took the field at Central Connecticut State and defeated Fairfield Prep to win the Class LL championship.
Maloney will look to get back in the win column next week at home against Simsbury.