Time for Battle: Thanksgiving Day Football

You can almost smell it in the late-autumn air.

For Cape Cod high school football fans… alumni… the marching band… the cheerleaders… coaches… and most assuredly, the players, few moments in a high school’s collective memory can have a more poignant or heartfelt impact. Make no mistake, in Massachusetts and for most of the country, Thanksgiving Day football is as much a tradition as grandpa’s hideous but annually persistent plaid sweater or mom’s pungent pumpkin pie. The Game, in other words, is as indelible and interwoven into the fabric of our culture as many if not all of the holiday’s trappings and appendages.

And while a new MIAA (Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association) football playoff format can make the traditional Thanksgiving Day rivalries seem less important than a postseason bid, the new format’s impact hasn’t necessarily made a visible impact on the holiday games or gate turnout.

As the late Leo Shields said prior to the vaunted Barnstable-Falmouth Thanksgiving Day game in 1948, all win-loss records aside, “anyone can win this game.”

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Turkey Day football on Cape Cod is a family affair, as evidenced by the Grimmer clan, seen here last fall with Tommy, Tom and Billy Grimmer proudly displaying The Selectmen’s Cup after Barnstable’s 47-0 win at Fuller Field over Falmouth.
Photo by Sean Walsh/CCBM Sports

To be truthful, for most if not all Cape high school football teams, Thanksgiving Day is almost like a season unto itself. Typically, depending on the playoff situation, teams can have anywhere up to 12 days to prepare for the big day. It’s a big layoff for a high school football player, but it’s also a huge opportunity to rest up battle-weary bodies and battered limbs.

“It’s a special occasion that is a privilege to be a part of for all players and coaches,” said Barnstable head coach Chris Whidden. “We have coaches on the staff who have played football at the highest level and they talk more about their Thanksgiving game experiences than any other. No matter what happens on Thursday, all seniors on both sides will have a memory that will be with them forever.”

Still, even rested, players can be fighting multiple battles come Thanksgiving Day. There’s a little thing called the weather that can have a massive impact. Field conditions – given a team does not have artificial turf – can be as equally tough to fight through as a goal line defense. There have been Thanksgiving Day games in recent memory that saw temperatures drop down to 10 degrees or fields coated with snow. A well-attended game can have its momentum shifted or perpetuated by vociferous fans. The sheer emotional energy of playing – for senior classmen – the last football game you may ever play can be your best friend, or your worst enemy.

Here’s a brief snapshot all the Cape Cod Thanksgiving Day high school football games on tap for this Thursday, Nov. 27. All games kickoff at 10:00 a.m.

Falmouth High Clippers (4-5) at Barnstable High Red Raiders (2-8)
It’s been said that sharks can literally smell blood in the water and if that is a simple scientific fact, then it will not matter much to the Clippers when they come to Hyannis Thursday morning to face their 119-year archrival hosts. Falmouth has taken it on the chin from the Red Raiders for the last half decade, not defeating Barnstable since 2008. Interestingly, Falmouth suited up just 25 varsity players on Thanksgiving 2008 and still it found the willpower and the heart to beat the Red Raiders on their home turf of W. Leo Shields Memorial Field by a 28-21 score. But it’s been semi-ugly ever since. Last season, the Red Raiders quickly picked apart an undersized and overmatched Falmouth Eleven, 47-0. But this season has been anything but pleasant for the hosts. Barnstable has come close to matching its all-time record for most defensive points allowed in a season (329/ 2008) this year, having let in 314 points to date. Plain and simple, Falmouth’s defense has been more resilient this fall, allowing just 206 points on defense. To go along with a 4-5 record after some fairly rough campaigns of late, there is little doubt the Clippers will be riding the yellow school buses down Route 28 at 7:00 am come Thursday, with chains on their wheels and nitrous under the hood. Yes, the Red Raiders have some high-powered offensive weapons in junior quarterback Griffin Burke who has shown some flashes of brilliance of late with a handful of substantial long-gain touchdown runs. Burke also has a quartet of apt-handed receivers in Eric Holzman (team’s leading scorer),

In 2008, then captains Isaiah Voegeli and Rob Bancroft celebrate their Red Raider Turkey Day victory at Fuller Field. Voegeli went on to a brilliant All-American career at Merrimack and Bancroft graduated from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy with honors. Sean Walsh photo

In 2008, then captains Isaiah Voegeli and Rob Bancroft celebrate their Red Raider Turkey Day victory at Fuller Field. Voegeli went on to a brilliant All-American career at Merrimack and Bancroft graduated from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy with honors.
Photo by Sean Walsh/CCBM Sports

Bo Delaney, Nate Balthazard and rookie Andrew Atsalis. Our money would be on senior running back DeMichael Johnson, though, who, if he can get in the open field is virtually unstoppable. Barnstable head coach Chris Whidden has never lost a Thanksgiving Day game. He won as interim head coach in 2010 when he had to step in on Turkey Day after his predecessor resigned prior to the Thanksgiving Day game, and he’s won ever since. Falmouth first-year head coach Derek Almeida might appear green on paper, but make no mistake, he’s as seasoned a Clipper as there ever was one and he has begun to right the Clipper football ship. There’s a great reason for that success this season: star athlete Nick Couhig who is equally adept on the baseball diamond as he is on the gridiron. If Barnstable can offer an answer to Couhig, it might have reason to hoist the battered old Selectmen’s Cup once again, but Falmouth is looking for some payback. We don’t think this will be one of those once-every-ten-year complete blowouts, but we think it will be close. If Barnstable senior placekicker Akeem McPherson is on his A-game, a victory may lay on his shoulders. He’s been seen splitting the uprights from the 50-yard line. This game may come down to some heroic kicking, to be frank. The game will be well-attended if the weather holds up, but even the weather can be a tricky factor on this football day of all football days. Barnstable needs to brace itself, but we’re calling it a deadlock. In case anyone’s confused about the all-time series record between these two teams, we’ll try and simplify it: Falmouth and Barnstable will play against each other for the 128th time on Thursday, but it will be only the 88th time they have played on Thanksgiving Day, a rivalry that yes, indeed, began on Thanksgiving Day in 1895. Barnstable holds both the all-time (60-59-8) and Thanksgiving Day game (44-39-4) edge. The match-up is 119 years old. How does that work then? Falmouth and Barnstable for many seasons used to play each other twice: once on Columbus Day and once on Thanksgiving Day. That two-times per year ended after World War II. Here’s our Prediction: 2-OT: Falmouth 14-Barnstable 14.

Pope John Paul II High Lions (8-2) at Bishop Connolly/Westport (7-3)
Pope John Paul II Head Coach John Muldoon’s Lions have been anything but mediocre in the program’s first four varsity seasons, posting an exceptional 31-13 win-loss record (.704 winning pct.) since the Lions stepped on the turf in 2011 and this year has been no different. Standing at 8-1 heading into its Nov. 15 battle against Bishop Connolly/Westport, it appeared as if the Lions just might stage its best season to date. Although it had fallen to powerhouse Millis/Hopedale in Round Two of the MIAA Div. 6 playoffs on Nov. 8, Pope John Paul II still held a significant advantage, it seemed, when it faced its Turkey Day Rival Bishop Connolly/Westport ahead of schedule (due to MIAA playoff loss formatting) On the following Friday, Nov. 15. But Fall River’s Bishop Connolly/Westport had different plans and staged a 26-14 upset over the Lions of Hyannis. Which brings us to a most interesting and unique twist to this Thursday’s 2nd Annual Thanksgiving Day game between the two schools: with PJP II standing at 8-2 on the season, and Bishop Connolly at 7-3, anything might happen. The bottom line, it will be one of the best-played games for a Cape team when the shoe hits the leather at midfield on Thursday morning. We have to give the edge to Coach Muldoon who was a competitor through-and-through growing up in Wareham and playing at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, and he’s every bit a competitor today. With the Lions outscoring their opponents this season at an overwhelming rate of 376-198 points for/against, versus Connolly’s 164-143 PF/PA ratio, we have to tip our hat to PJP II. Prediction: Pope John Paul II 34, Bishop Connolly/Westport 21.

Cape Cod Regional Voc. Technical High Crusaders (2-8) at Upper Cape Cod Regional Voc. High Rams (4-6)
You Might call this a re-building year for both Tech programs on the Cape, but then again you could call it the best season Crusaders head coach Chris Leonard has had since his first at the helm in 2011. Sandwiched around two seasons without a win in 2012 and 2013, Leonard skippered the Crusaders to a 1-7 mark his first go-round in 2011 contrasted with a 2-8 mark thus far this season. It certainly has been a step in the right direction but he may have his hands full come Turkey Day. Coached by the estimable Mike Hernon, the Upper Cape Tech Rams have had winning campaigns in two out of Hernon’s first four seasons, including the 2012 Div. 5 Super Bowl Championship title. Hernon took over the Upper Cape Tech program after it graduated from being a co-op team with the Bourne Canalmen and he knows his stuff. He won a Super Bowl as a player, two as an assistant coach and he has one title under his belt as the skipper. Hernon’s Rams have greater scoring potential and with that in mind, the Crusaders’ biggest weakness this season has been its defense (170 PF/236 PA). The Rams have also put up some pretty respectable scores versus other Tech and Voke school opponents this season. Prediction: Upper Cape Tech 38, Cape Cod Tech Crusaders 17.

Bourne High Canalmen (1-9) at Wareham High Vikings (1-9)
There’s something to be said for being the second longest-running Thanksgiving Day Showdown on Cape Cod. Since 1934, the Canalmen and the Vikings have been consistently hammering heads against each other on Turkey Day morning and much like the vaunted Barnstable-Falmouth rivalry, anything can happen when these two teams meet. Simply put, it’s a matter of pride. The win-loss records go straight out the window. Thus, having that stated, we’re not going to overanalyze this affair: we know it will be a battle until the final seconds tick off the clock. For better or worse, there will be some sore bones come Friday in the sleepy seaside towns of Bourne and Wareham. Since both teams seem fairly equal in terms of scoring – Wareham’s offensive output this year thus far has been 140 points, averaging two touchdowns a game, versus Bourne’s 176 points – it might make sense to give the nod to the Canalmen on Turkey Day. But we know better. Wareham has historically put forth some pretty hard-hitting, rough-and-tumble squads. While both teams’ defenses have been porous this year – Wareham’s allowed 360 points and Bourne has allowed 379 points – we’ll stick with the old adage that defense wins championships. Well, to the Vikings and Canalmen, Turkey Day is every bit a championship-level affair. Prediction: Give this one to the Vikings, 28-27.

Sandwich High Blue Knights (3-7) at Mashpee High Falcons (8-2)
There’s little wiggle room here to predict this one. While the Blue knights of Sandwich are the benefactors of a fantastic new artificial field surface and have graduated from the confines of the Sandwich Pop Warner Field, this year’s Turkey Day gridiron battle will be at the home of the Falcons and it is there that first-year head coach Bill O’Connell’s gridders will face a fast, high-powered attack under former Barnstable Red Raider and head coach/athletic director Matt Triveri. If anyone had Thanksgiving football pumped into his veins in his formative years, it was Triveri who was a bruising fullback-linebacker in the early 1990s for then-head coach Spanky Demanche at Barnstable High. While Sandwich had some super-close battles the first half of the season, it appears injuries may have worn the Blue Knights down in the second half of 2014; all-totalled, Sandwich has put just 103 points up on the board this season. Not so for Triveri’s Falcons. The Falcons have scored a whopping 258 points by comparison and were postseason contenders at 6-1 before losing to powerhouse Millis/Hopedale in round one of the MIAA Tournament. Mashpee has also won its last two games, including a bone-jarring, 6-0, win against West Bridgewater earlier this month. Prediction: Mashpee 42, Sandwich 6

Dennis-Yarmouth Dolphins (6-4) at Nauset Regional High School Warriors (3-7)
Never underestimate Coach Keith Kenyon’s Warrior 11. Kenyon’s turnaround of the Warriors in recent years has been evidenced by some pretty tight ballgames between the boys in black and gold versus Coach Paul Funk’s heralded Dolphins. You could call this a rebuilding year for the Warriors but a solid victory over Sandwich two weeks ago revealed that Nauset’s not going down without a fight. The Dolphins, though, are pretty tough to beat on Turkey Day. Funk’s boys have won the last 11 Chowdah Bowls and if quarterback Mike Dunn has anything to say in his final high school game on Turkey Day, then the Warriors just might have their hands full. Dunn ran roughshod over Middleboro in the state semifinals two weeks ago, including a 72-yard touchdown return, over 100 yards rushing and passing. This game will be well-attended and exciting, no matter what happens. Prediction: Dennis-Yarmouth 38, Nauset 10

By Sean Walsh/CCBM Sports Editor

He may be contacted via email at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @coachwalshccbm

Barnstable High's Dave Wiseman celebrates the Turkey Day victory in 2005. Sean Walsh photo

Barnstable High’s Dave Wiseman celebrates the Turkey Day victory in 2005.
Photo by Sean Walsh/CCBM Sports