Published December 07. 2012 4:00AM Updated December 07. 2012 10:46PM
East Hartford - Joey Paparelli stood on the top step inside a suite at Rentschler Field, a giant glass window providing a magnificent view of the stadium outside.
"This stadium ... it's a legit stadium for football," said Paparelli, Norwich Free Academy's senior quarterback. "It's amazing."
Paparelli and the Wildcats expected to be at Rentschler today playing for the Class LL state championship. Their confidence stemmed from their experience, their talent and their work ethic.
Tonight at 7, NFA will try to win the program's first state football championship when it plays two-time defending state champion Xavier.
"We definitely did expect it," Paparelli said. "Every game we went into, we knew that we were supposed to win. And we had our eyes set on going to the Rent.
"We knew that we had the personnel and players to do it. It's worked out for us."
NFA (12-0), ranked eighth in The Day's Top 10 state coaches' poll, is the fifth seed in the Class LL playoff field.
Xavier (11-1), No. 5 in the poll, is the No. 3 seed in Class LL. A win would allow the Falcons to become the first program in CIAC playoff history to three-peat as Class LL champion.
Athletes, in general, are a confident lot, but not every player or coach expects to make it to a state final.
Hand coach Steve Filippone, for instance, said after the Tigers' Class L semifinal win Sunday that he wasn't sure if they could make it back to the final. Bear in mind that Hand is the defending Class L champion, the state's top-ranked team, and has won 26 games in a row.
"(I was) very confident in the sense that I felt we had the players and commitment level to get here," NFA coach Jemal Davis said. "Obviously, you still have to be able to do it. You've got to win your games and you've got to be successful in the playoffs.
"Do we have the talent, do we have the commitment, do we have the coaching, do we have the support, all that stuff? I knew we had. Now we had to go out there and do it."
The Wildcats haven beaten the South-West Conference champion (Newtown) and Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Confer ence champion (Staples) en route to the final.
Paparelli said, "Why lose if you're not supposed to, right? We felt that we were going to be the superior team in every game we've played, and so far, we're 12-0."
Xavier poses many problems for the Wildcats. Its offensive line averages 275 pounds and its defensive line is almost as big. Senior quarterback Tim Boyle, who has made a verbal commitment to Boston College, has thrown for more than 2,250 yards with 23 touchdowns. Senior DeAngelo Berry has rushed for over 1,700 yards with 36 touchdowns.
"What concerns me is their offensive line," Davis said. "The size that they have ... they're mammoths there. Can our athletic ability counter their size?"
NFA causes issues for the Falcons, too. Junior tailback Marcus Outlow has shown the entire state why major Division I programs have come calling. Senior receiver-defensive back Ryer Caruso is a threat every time he touches the ball. Paparelli has rushed for more than 900 yards with 10 touchdowns and thrown for more than 600 yards with 12 scores.
Seniors Steven Makowicki (linebacker) and Tuzar Skipper (end) lead a punishing defense.
"I kind of thought that Staples, with basically their whole team coming back, pretty much had a ticket to the finals," Xavier coach Sean Marinan said. "Did I underestimate NFA a little? Yeah.
"What impressed me even more (about NFA) is that they stepped up to the plate against Staples with its tradition and all that and really slapped them in the face."