St. Joseph High head football coach Joe Della Vecchia spread his arms and hugged one after another of his defensive stalwarts.

There was less than two minutes remaining in the Cadets game at Staples High in Westport, and the Hogs had held the Wreckers on downs at their 37-yard line.

“On fourth and short, our kids stepped up,” Della Vecchia said after St. Joseph defeated the Wreckers 24-17 to improve to 7-1 on the season. “We are an undersized team, but played big tonight.”

Staples, now 5-3 on the season, twice took touchdown leads in the first half. The Cadets countered each time to tie the game, and scored on their first two possessions of the third quarter for a 24-14 advantage.

Staples took the lead on a 22-yard run by Elliott Poulley at the 43-second mark of the first period. Cadet quarterback Cory Babineau then ran for a 7-yard score to deadlock things after Luke Kirby’s PAT with 2:15 remaining in the second quarter. Phil Pasmeg had a tackle-breaking 24-yard catch to keep the drive alive.

Poulley’s 76-yard scamper on the Wreckers next play sent the Staples’ Senior Night crowd into a frenzy.

Babineau, with David Veeley, Alec Pelletier, Nick Crocco, Jesse Veilleux and Rob Mihaly providing protection up front, led the Cadets 80-yards in 1:38.

Jared Mallozzi moved the chains with catches good for 12 and 31 yards, before latching onto a perfectly thrown 16-yard score with 14 seconds left to tie the game at the break.

It was St. Joseph’s second straight series finding the end zone, after four empty possessions to start the game (interception, punt, fumble, punt).

The Cadets opened the second half with a 75-yard, 12-play drive.

Jesse Bike had a clutch 15-yard catch for a first down.

Jaden Shirden took a screen pass and pinballed his way for 15 yards.

Babineau used Shirden as a decoy and ran the QB read for good yards, setting up his 5-yard scoring toss to Mallozzi for a 21-14 lead at 6:46 of the third period.

The Cadets got the ball back, and Babineau found Mallozzi for a 49-yard gain to the Wreckers’ nine-yard line.

Staples held here, and Kirby’s 21-yard field goal took the lead to 24-14 with 27 seconds remaining in the third quarter.

Coach Marce Petroccio’s Wreckers used their powerful inside running tandem of Poulley and Harris Levi to drive 55 yards to get within a touchdown on Ben van der Merwe’s 34-yard field goal with 7:19 remaining.

Staples forced a punt to get the ball back with 5:50 on the clock down 24-17.

Quarterback Andrew Speed scrambled his way for a first down, and moved the chains again on a 4th-and-5 pass good for seven yards to Levi.

Finally, on 4th-and-6 from the St. Joseph 43, the Cadets front stopped Levi a yard short of the marker.

“Coach (Gary) Clark had us working on fourth down plays all week,” said Cadet co-captain Brian Harner, one of the Cadet standouts on defense.

“We knew it was going to come down to that last possession. Staples is that good. We played our base and then reacted to one they showed us.”

Mallozzi had 12 catches good for 201 yards, after being blanked on St. Joseph’s first three possessions.

“We made a couple of route switches to allow Jared to come clear,” Della Vecchia said. “Cory made some great reads, some great throws, and Jared is Jared. He is going to catch the ball.”

Babineau, who was 18 of 28 passing for 292 yards after a game-opening interception, agreed with his coach.

“We saw the corner sitting (taking the short pass) and I knew Jared could get to the edge,” he said. “We worked on it all week. We had some triple routes to free Jared up.

"It meant a lot to win here. Last year they beat us to put us in a must-win situation. They had a lot of size. Credit our o-line. We played tough football.””

Mallozzi said, “We knew the safety liked to drop so we looked for space. They were double covering me early, but the there was great play calling by the coaches and we ran a triple.

“Our offensive line blocked well and all the guys made plays. Tonight was all about the defense. They put their heart into this game.”

With its seventh consecutive victory after a season-opening loss to top-ranked Darien High, this win helped solidify the Cadets second-place seeding in the eight-team Class M playoffs.

“We have two tough teams left to play,” said Della Vecchia of upcoming games with Westhill High and then Trumbull High on Thanksgiving. “Our kids kept hearing that we hadn’t beaten anyone. You have to play hard each week to win in the FCIAC.”

Staples, after losing an outside game to Norwich Free Academy (33-14), has now lost two straight contests to Ridgefield (42-7) and now St. Joseph.

The Wreckers have Darien and Greenwich left to play.