Ridgefield edges Staples, 24-20, on late TD pass

Yes, the term instant classic is overused. Just not in this case.

After squandering an early 17-point lead, the Ridgefield High football team recovered to beat host Staples, 24-20, on Friday night in Westport. The Tigers, who improved to 3-1, scored the winning touchdown on Greg Gatto's pass to Luke Gaydos with under two minutes remaining.

Playing in front of a boisterous Homecoming crowd, Staples went ahead for the first time on its opening drive of the fourth quarter. Harris Levi capped the march with a 10-yard touchdown run that gave the Wreckers a 20-17 lead with 7:45 left in the third quarter.

Ridgefield got down to the Staples 15-yard line late in the third quarter, but Gatto lofted a 50-50 ball into the corner of the end zone that was intercepted by Jake Thaw.

Staples then put together a time-consuming possession before Ridgefield got a stop and took over on its own 35 with 3:43 to play.

On what may yet prove to be the defining drive of the season, Gatto led the Tigers down the field. He hit Evan Wein on a curl route for eight yards and then connected with Wein on another completion to get the ball past midfield. From the Staples 42-yard line, Gatto fired a crisp pass to Wein on the sideline in front of the Ridgefield bench. Wein slipped away from a tackle and sprinted down to the Wreckers' 11-yard line.

Gatto called his own number and ran up the middle for a 10-yard gain that put the Tigers inside the Staples one-yard line. A stuffed a run play and an incomplete pass left Ridgefield with a third-and-goal from the one. Out of the shotgun, Gatto threw a floating pass to wide receiver Gaydos on a left cut just outside of the end zone. Gaydos made the extra effort and got into the end zone, giving the Tigers a 24-20 lead (after Harry Woodger's extra point) with 1:42 left in the game.

"Coach isolated me one-on-one on the backside, and Greg (Gatto) threw me a perfect ball and I was able to make it happen,” said Gaydos about the touchdown.

Staples rendered the final moments interesting. The Wreckers reached the Ridgefield 25-yard line with 43 seconds left, but on a fourth-and-six play quarterback David Thompson tried to run for the first down and was stopped well short by linebacker Alex Cali and defensive end Jason Donovan. That turned the ball over to Ridgefield, and Gatto and the offense ran out the clock.

The first quarter was all Ridgefield. On their opening possession, the Tigers used a few pass-interference penalties to move deep into Staples territory before settling for Woodger's 26-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead.

Ridgefield's defense suffocated the Staples option offense, forcing a quick punt. Gatto then put on a clinic during the ensuing Ridgefield drive. On the opening play, he threw a perfectly placed pass that Wein hauled in for a 49-yard gain to the Wreckers' 27.

Two plays later, Gatto hit Wein up the middle to the five-yard line. On third and goal from the four, Staples blitzed Gatto, who avoided the sack and fired the ball into the hands of standout junior wide receiver Jackson Mitchell on a right-slant whip for the touchdown. Woodger's extra point put Ridgefield in front, 10-0, with 4:44 left in the half.

Following a short Staples punt, the Tigers took over at the Wreckers' 40-yard line with 2:32 left in the quarter. On second and six, Gatto hit Gaydos, who crept up against the left sideline but stayed inbounds for a 16-yard gain

Just 10 yards away from the end zone, Gatto showed off his athleticism by running the ball himself on back-to-back plays, scoring from the three-yard line on the second carry. Woodger's extra point made it 17-0 with 45 seconds remaining in the opening period.

With the game trending in the same direction as Ridgefield's 42-7 blowout victory over the Wreckers last season, Staples fought back. A 46-yard completion from Thompson to Kevin Rabacs set up Levi's four-yard touchdown run and got the Wreckers on the board. Ridgefield did deny the two-point conversion attempt, leaving its lead at 17-6.

Jack Beck's interception ended the next Ridgefield drive, and Staples took advantage, as Thompson found a wide-open Rabacs for a 72-yard touchdown pass off a double-reverse play that was nearly bungled in the backfield. The score narrowed the Tigers' lead to 17-13 with 1:48 left in the half.

"Seeing them run that trick play just let us know that we were doing our jobs," said Ridgefield senior Noah Isaacson, who teamed with fellow linebackers Connor Goff and Cali for a host of big plays. "Obviously we would've rather shut down that play, but the fact that they had to go deep into the playbook and shift gears to try to beat us is a testament to our defense and the preparation our coaches gave us for this game.”

Staples maintained the momentum by scoring on its first drive of the third quarter to take a three-point lead. But Gatto and the Tigers had an answer that produced a memorable road win.

"We were able to prove tonight that we can bounce back from negative plays and keep our composure," said Gatto. "We made a lot of gutsy plays and stayed together as a group."