It was 2002 and Ridgefield head football coach Kevin Callahan’s fourth season at the helm. After opening the year with three consecutive shutout victories, the Tigers lost to Danbury and New Canaan.
Then, things got crazy.
The Tigers righted themselves with a homecoming victory over Stamford on Ryan Cazalet’s last-second, toe-stepping touchdown pass reception for a 13-6 win. After dispatching McMahon for another win, Ridgefield traveled to Bridgeport Central for a 7 p.m. contest. The game didn’t start until 9:30.
“Our bus got stuck in traffic on I-84 because of a fatal car accident,” Callahan recalled from his house on Tuesday evening. “The Central AD wanted to call off the game, but we had to play because we couldn’t get a bus for the next day.”
“We almost didn’t even play that game because of the traffic and when we got there, an embankment of lights were out,” said Cazalet.
Cazalet went on to score five touchdowns on that Friday night as Ridgefield began a run of victories leading up to the regular-season season finale at Wilton.
“The Wilton game was really crazy,” said Cazalet. “They kicked the extra point to tie the game late in the fourth quarter, but there was an offside penalty against us. They took the tying point off the board and went for the win. Our defensive line got a great push and Nick Petrini made the game- and season-saving tackle on the two-point conversion attempt.
“I remember thinking that was the last game I would play at RHS and walked off the field very satisfied with my career there. That weekend we were told that we just missed the (state) playoffs by the smallest possible percentage. Then I got a call from Coach Callahan a few days later saying that the CIAC miscalculated and that we actually made the playoffs.”
Joe Arcieri, now a Ridgefield assistant football coach: “After the Wilton game, we thought that was it. We said our good-byes, thanked the coaches, and congratulated everyone on a great season. But, then once we found out that we did get in, we knew that we were going to win.”
“In order for us to get into the playoffs, Shelton had to lose on Thanksgiving,” said Callahan. “They were one of the state’s top teams. Miraculously, they were upset, but I was told, we were out. Then after the holiday weekend, I got a call from the Shelton coach saying we were in, by something like .5 points. They were just starting to use computers to calculate playoff berths and we lucked out after an error was discovered.”
Ridgefield was seeded fourth out of four teams in Class L and traveled to face top-seeded Amity.
“The Amity game was so cold that their grass field was frozen solid; it was like playing on concrete,” said Cazalet. “Our cleats couldn’t even dig into the grass; it was like wearing ice skates, so I ended up playing that game in the sneakers I wore to school that morning.”
“Matt Pambianchi made a big catch for us and Dean DeNovio made the winning field goal,” said Callahan about the 16-15 victory that put his squad into the championship game against Windsor at West Haven.
Again, fate intervened. The game was postponed because of a blizzard.
The following day, Ridgefield bet Windsor, 14-13, to win the state championship, its third consecutive one-point victory.
“Pete Morelli, one of the toughest players I ever coached, took a dump pass and ran 70 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter,” said Callahan. “That was just the start of the craziness. Our punter Chris Landers bailed us out after a snap went over his head and he kicked the ball almost backwards, like rugby style.
“We were up 14-7 going into the final minutes. It was helter-skelter. Windsor then scored at game’s end. But, they missed the extra point, yet they got the ball back and on the final play we intercepted. We had our title. I was most proud because it was my first four-year class of players.”
Pambianchi, who now works with Price-Waterhouse, said: “It was a very memorable run for us, and it was great seeing a lot of people who were part of it this past weekend (at the reunion last Friday night after the Wilton game.)
Arcieri had a personal moment he recalled from a decade ago.
“One of my fondest memories that always gets brought up was my grandfather being on the sideline track in his wheelchair during the championship game,” he said. “In our highlight tape, you can see my mom pushing him up and down the track at West Haven, whenever there was a big play so that he could see. He was easy to pick out because he had an orange Tiger blanket draped over his legs. It’s a great memory from that game as well as when I think about him.”
Cazalet, the championship game MVP, a former assistant coach at Hofstra (before it dropped football) and now a college recruiter, summed it all up.
“What I’ll always remember are the guys and the coaches. Matt Pambianchi and Pete Morelli remain my closest friends to this day. Pete Morelli was the most dominant football player I’ve ever played with. His combination of size and speed was something that teams just couldn’t stop.
“Our senior class was just a special collection of athletes. We weren’t the biggest or strongest team, we didn’t break any single-season records, but collectively we were just a great team and it was an honor to be a part of that team.”