Early on Saturday morning, a prevailing westerly sweeps the steppe called Martha's Vineyard Airport, and the regional high school football team hustles from the terminal into a potbellied Gull Airlines plane bound for Nantucket and The Game.

Several players snatch sets of shoulder pads and a blue cloth bag marked PBA Air Freight. Now it looks like a few will have to wait and ride one of the smaller shuttle planes for Island fans. But senior co-captain Woody Araujo thinks not. Today is his last game in purple and white and shoulder pads.

"I left my hot chocolate and everything," the running back-linebacker says. "I'm going now."

Perhaps if they knew they were on their way to a 20-0 trouncing at the hands of the 8-1 Whalers, on a chalk-marked steppe across Nantucket Sound, Woody and the 4-5 Vineyarders would not be in such a hurry. But most Vineyarders — players and cheerleaders, coaches and parents, friends and brothers, freshmen and graduates — take it on faith that season records mean little on the last football Saturday before winter.

Less than an hour later, at the other Island airport, 1984 graduate John Klingensmith Jr., now a collegian but first a Klingensmith and a Vineyarder, pulls an airhorn out of his purple letterman's jacket and announces, "Nantucket, here I am!"

John Klingensmith the elder has a horn, too, but won't press it into service until he has to, to cheer on son and Vineyard co-captain Mark Klingensmith and his mates.

"My vocal cords never make it to the half," he says.

The $26 price of the round-trip plane ticket entitles visiting Vineyarders to ground transportation and coffee and doughnuts, courtesy of W.S. Brown Insurance. And with kickoff three hours away, two school busloads of Vineyard fans and family — including insurance man and trip organizer Donald Lambert — ride to downtown Nantucket to take in the sights and shops. On the ride over the flat, gnarly-treed topography of Nantucket, the visitors inevitably draw comparisons with the Vineyard.

"Doesn't this remind you of Katama?" one of them asks.

Michael Joyce, on hand even with son Mike an injured, questionable starter, is more impressed by the road system.

"They've got a rotary!" he exclaims at the crossroads near the Inquirer-Mirror newspaper office.

Downtown, the game seems the farthest thing from the business district's mind until you reach cobbled Main street, and a storefront is draped with a sheet declaring, "Right on, Whalers!"

Soon the strains of band music filter down the side streets, drawing the curious and the knowing eastward toward the high school a mile away, a building that fits right in with the gray wood-shingled decor of the community. An escort of antique cars and police cruisers leads the homecoming parade onto the field, set in a natural amphitheatre not quite out of reach of the cold sword of the November gale. The Nantucket Junior Miss candidates smile through the ordeal, but the band, at least — all five members worth — plays itself as warm as you can get on a landscaper's flatbed truck.

On the next float, the Nantucket class of 1987 declares, "We're jammin' the grapes." And looking forward to their high school years and Games, the class of 1990 rides in on a fire truck chanting, "Squash them grapes!"

Even Vineyarders have to smile at the last float, bearing space-suited Whalers singing, "Who're you gonna call? Grapebusters!"

Junior varsity squads for both Islands grapple in the dying moments of an 8-8 tie. A gust rips a down marker out of a small boy's hand, smack onto a Vineyarder's helmet. Westward-bound punts don't travel as far horizontally as vertically.

In the broadcast booth above the field, radio and cable TV people plug in and fire up for what one man will call "a game of epic proportions."

In the opening series of the varsity game, the Vineyard offense blocks out the partisan clamor from the home side of the field — and enough Whaler linemen to move the ball into Nantucket territory. On second down and two from the Whaler 48, Scott Dario scoots for first-down yardage. But the ball and the game squirt loose, into the hands of the Nantucket defense. Three plays later, Nantucket halfback Richard Perry breaks a tackle at the line, fakes the Vineyard safety man out of his hip-pads and outruns everybody else to the end zone.

Vineyard followers cheer and are cheered when Chris Metell bulldogs Mr. Perry to prevent a two-point conversion. But the first play after the kickoff — a Nantucket interception — puts the Vineyard defense on the field again. Woody Araujo raises hopes and spirits by recovering a fumbled pitchout to Richard Perry at the Vineyard 38 yard line, but the play only presages a punting duel that runs deep into the second quarter.

When the Vineyarders try to break the string by running on fourth and one, the Nantucket defense stuffs Bobby Duarte at his 18 yard line. From there, it takes four plays and a Richard Perry leap over the Vineyard goal line to make it 12-0. A Columbian exchange student named Juan Garcia makes it 13.

"Dennis," the Nantucket radio station play by play man asks his sidekick, "no AFS students allowed unless they can kick a football?"

Dennis just grins.

The overworked Vineyard defense soon is back in the trenches, and only halftime, it seems, keeps the Whalers out of the end zone again.

The visiting fans run for coffee and for cover from the wind. Athletic director Anne Carmichael and assorted Vineyard school officials sensibly stay under cover in the press box.

The intermission lasts just long enough for numbed fingers and feet to remember how painful Atlantic cold can be, and soon Donna Joyce is clumping back to her seat in the stands.

"You down for the summer?" a fellow sufferer asks.

Their team isn't quite down for the count. On fourth and six, Randy Fauteux hauls in the first Vineyard reception of the day at the Nantucket 10. But a penalty, an impenetrable Whaler wall and a sack of Mr. Packish puts out the lights. Then the fleet Richard Perry shorts out the fuse when he turns a screen pass into a 59-yard touchdown.

With the clock winding down and the Whalers at first and 10 on the Martha's Vineyard 24, all alumnus John Klingensmith Jr. can do is call for a little pride and no more Nantucket points.

"Hey, Mark," he shouts. "Hit somebody, man, it's your last game."

The rest of the team takes the command to heart. A roughness penalty puts the Whalers on the Vineyard 11 yard line, but then junior defensive end Philip Packish dumps halfback David Bartlett for a nine-yard loss.

Finally, mercifully, the Vineyarders' best friend today — the clock — strikes zero, and the race is on for buses, for airline boarding passes and for home.