Bring on the football rivalries; it’s Thanksgiving weekend.
Alabama-Auburn. UCLA-USC. Ohio State-Michigan.
This year marks a tipping point in the annual Island Cup rivalry, now in its 35th year. Since 1978, when the familiar silver trophy first commemorated the end-of-season game, the Vineyard has won 17 times. Nantucket, too, has won 17 times. At stake during Saturday’s contest at Vito Capizzo Stadium are bragging rights for an entire series.
“I told the team, it’s a matter of how we handle the environment and the emotions, especially early in the game,” Vineyard head coach Donald Herman said early this week. “And how we respond to any adversity.”
“It’s not a matter of if we see any adversity,” he continued. “We’re going to see it.”
It’s no secret that Nantucket wants the Island Cup back. The last time the Whalers won the Cup was in 2002.
“Some of these guys were in kindergarten last time Nantucket had the Cup,” Whaler head coach Bill Manchester said of his team. This year, he said, Nantucket’s game plan is simple: Get the lead and keep it.
Last year the Vineyard defeated the Whalers 27-26 on a last-second touchdown pass. The previous year, the defense of both squads put on a show, with the Vineyard winning 10-7.
The Vineyarders are 4-6 this season with a 3-2 record in away contests, and just missed qualifying for the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletics Association playoff bracket. Nantucket, at 5-5, did qualify but fell in their first game to number one seed Cohasset.
Nantucket’s squad boasts a formidable group of linemen to challenge the Vineyard’s defense, which has improved throughout the season. Seniors Andrew Jacobs-Walsh and Kyle Stobie have recorded 69 and 67 tackles, respectively; senior Lochlund Chimes and sophomore Austin Chandler have 54 each. On Saturday the Vineyard also gets a considerable boost in the return of senior Tony Canha, fifth in tackles despite missing half the season with an injury.
The Vineyard’s offensive strength lies in its speed, particularly that of receiver DeShawn James and running backs Joe Turney, Jacob Cardoza and Isaac Higgins. Overall, Coach Herman said, the team’s ability to compete in physical play also stands out.
“We’ve had to [be physical] with our schedule,” he said. “The schedule’s very, very challenging and we’ve hung in there and done some good things.”
The Vineyard has fallen in offensive shootouts (a 60-41 loss to Brighton) and held their own in defensive duels (an 8-6 win against league opponent Bishop Stang). Two games went into overtime, including a triple overtime 9-6 loss to Bishop Feehan that Coach Herman nevertheless singled out as an example of the Vineyard’s never-say-die attitude. “Even our last game with Archbishop Williams [a 32-21 loss], we hung in there with a very athletic, very talented team,” he said. “The kids kept fighting back; it was good to see the way we attacked.”
Across the Sound, the Whalers had a rebuilding year as the young team stepped up to the varsity level.
“Our seniors that were coming back were very talented and did good things,” Coach Manchester said. “But it takes more than eight seniors to make a team . . . they just kept coming back from the challenges and adversity.”
Coach Manchester said the Whaler team came away from their Cohasset loss frustrated but inspired.
“We played the number one seed, we saw how well they played and what level we need to get to,” the coach said.
In the Whalers’ last game, against Mashpee, the team was down 14-0 at the half and rallied to win 17-14.
“It was a little bit like the Patriots game with the Broncos,” Coach Manchester said.
Nantucket has had a season of streaks, starting off 0-3 before winning the next four games.
The Vineyard’s season, Coach Herman said, has been “an up and down type thing.”
“The biggest obstacle I think we’ve faced, other than the schedule, is the injury factor,” he said. “We got to the point where we started running out of men.” During the Vineyard’s homecoming game against league opponent Coyle and Cassidy, nine varsity players were sidelined with injuries ranging from a torn thumb ligament to a fractured larynx.
“Injuries are part of any sport,” Coach Herman said. “This year we’ve had some really strange ones.”
And yet the Vineyard defeated Coyle 18-7, rallying in the fourth quarter to score two touchdowns in the last three minutes of the game. The game was just the third start for senior quarterback Tony Breth, stepping in for injured starter Mike Mussell. Breth will also start on Saturday.
“I think that just shows the tenacity of our team this year, and that’s just fantastic to see it,” said Coach Herman.
Several key players return for the big game, including seniors DeShawn James and Tyler Paulson. Junior Jack Slayton also returns to the field, providing a boost to the Vineyard special teams.
“In the meantime, when all those kids were out, we had other people — younger kids in particular, stepping up and getting varsity experience,” Coach Herman said. “That’s great for this weekend and beyond.”
On both Islands, spirits are running high in anticipation of the final game. At the regional high school, Go Vineyard! signs decorate the halls. The annual Island Cup bonfire was held Monday night.
Coach Manchester said he expects a good crowd on Saturday, with college students home for Thanksgiving and many Nantucket holiday visitors turning out.
“We’re kind of lucky that at the end of the year you have a game that matters no matter what,” he said.
The 35th Island Cup game will be played at 1 p.m. on Saturday at Nantucket. The junior varsity game begins at 10 a.m. A fan boat departs from the Vineyard Haven Steamship Authority terminal at 7 a.m., and leaves Nantucket at 4 p.m. Tickets for the boat can be purchased at mvfootball.com. The Gazette will carry coverage of the game via Twitter, Facebook and on its website (mvgazette.com).