Norwich - Five years ago, Ryer Caruso was playing for Norwich in youth football.
The following year, Caruso was starting for the Norwich Free Academy varsity.
It was kind of intense.
"I was pretty freaked out," Caruso, now a senior, said. "I was, what, 14 playing with 18 year-olds? It's a huge change, but it was for the best because I've learned from it, and it made me the player I am to this day."
Caruso's experience and athleticism have been a benefit to the Wildcats as they've been wrecking teams from Woodstock to Newtown. They play top-seeded Staples of Westport in a CIAC Class LL semifinal today at West Haven High (12:30 p.m.)
"I think anytime you have a guy with that kind of experience, that kind of puts your mind at ease in a variety of ways," NFA coach Jemal Davis said. "He understands the importance of commitment and accountability.
"He's a very likable kid and really the essence of the pride we have in our program."
The fifth-seeded Wildcats (11-0), ranked eighth in The Day of New London Top 10 state coaches' poll, are making their second semifinal appearance in three seasons.
"I learned from great athletes like Tony (Facchini) and all these other guys," Caruso said. "I just learned and watched their leadership and how they led the team."
"My sophomore year, we were in the same place where we are right now. I've learned what it takes and what the next step is to get to the next level."
Caruso is a receiver in NFA's run-heavy option offense. He has 14 catches for 312 yards and six touchdowns.
"He's a very unselfish young man," Davis said. "If he played for another program with a passing offense, he'd probably be an 800-900-yard receiver."
Caruso is also an adept defensive back, although he didn't play defense for part of the season when the Wildcats were using a platoon system.
"Against East Lyme (on Oct. 12), he didn't play defense all year up to that point," Davis said. "East Lyme is moving the ball. I put him in there and he intercepts the ball and goes 90 yards for a score. He just does those things."
Quarterback is another of those things Caruso can do, too. He played the position for Norwich in youth football and as an NFA freshman.
"I've always been a quarterback," Caruso said. "It's always just come naturally. It's in my blood. It just comes easy to me."
Caruso was given a chance to show off his passing skills during Wednesday's 63-21 mashing of Newtown in the quarterfinals. He lined up at quarterback on a few snaps and threw two passes -touchdowns of 51 and 65 yards to Marcus Outlow.
"I'm sure it confused them (Newtown) as much as it confused people in the stands," NFA starting quarterback Joey Paparelli said after the game.
Staples (10-0) is the two-time Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference champion. Most of the team started last season and didn't lose until the LL final. Staples has averaged 51 points.
Quarterback Jack Massie (1,353 yards passing, 15 TDs), tailback Joey Zelkowitz (1,049 yards, 15 TDs), and receiver James Frusciante (39 catches, 819 yards, 12 touchdowns) lead Staples' offense. Nick Kelly, its second-leading rusher, is out with a shoulder injury suffered in Tuesday's quarterfinal win over West Haven.
"They've got multiple players that are explosive," Davis said. "I think our kids are excited to play the No. 1 team in Class LL and the No. 2 team in the poll and see where they are. They want to have a measuring stick."