The memories of last Saturday will be tough to erase: the Nantucket Whal­ers, with coach Vito Capizzo on their shoulders, hoisting the Island Cup for all the Vineyard to see. The visitors cel­ebrating a 7-6 victory that took the Cup, the league championship, a slot in the Division 5 Super Bowl, and Mr. Capizzo’s 200th career triumph. “Right in your back yard!” a Nan­tucket player screams. “We took it away from you right in your back yard.”
What will make this memory so hard to forget is how close it came to being the other way. In fact, it can be argued that Nantucket hardly took away the Island Cup; it was given away, by Vineyard mistakes, by penalties, by confusion in the game’s waning mo­ments. This was not the Whaler con­quest that Mr. Capizzo had predicted: The Vineyard dominated the game, but could not score, and Nantucket hung on to its one-point life.
Mr. Capizzo realized this. “It wasn’t a pretty win, but we’ll take it,” he said. “The Vineyard is a great team. They played hard and physical. We lucked out.”
The perspiration on Mr. Capizzo’s forehead came from relief. Just one season ago, the coach suffered the worst loss of his 30-year career, a 14-12 shocker to the Vineyard after being ahead 12-0 with four minutes to play. All winter long he heard the whispers: Vito got outcoached, Vito’s lost a step, Vito should step down.
Privately, he wondered if he would retire. This September, Mr. Capizzo came back to a team that lost 17 se­niors, including its quarterback and star running back. In fact, when prac­tices began, he had only 22 students come out for the squad. Fortunately for him, he coaches Nantucket, where football runs a close second to breath­ing in importance, so when Mr. Ca­pizzo needed players, the alarm was sounded. By the third week of practice, he had 53 Whalers on the roster.
Though Mr. Capizzo molded these 53 players into 9-0 contenders, on Sat­urday they looked downright ordi­nary. Their offense could not click, and their defense at times appeared po­rous. On the third play from scrim­mage, Vineyarder Jason Tillman bored through for a 59-yard run, setting up Mike Dowd’s five-yard touch­down scamper.
But the smaller. Quicker Whalers would find a way to make it work. Late in the second quarter, Nantucket’s Shane McWeeny tackled Tillman when the latter tried to field a high snap on a punt. The visitors took over on the 15- yard line, and two plays later, John Aloisi hit tight end Mac Davis for a nine-yard touchdown pass.
It was a play that critically struck the Vineyard twice this season. The same pass route was used by Blue Hills for its game-winning two point conversion two weeks ago.
“The same exact play,” said a frus­trated Vineyard assistant coach, David Maddox. “We lose two games by two points. Two points and we’re going to the Super Bowl.”
Indeed, the Vineyarders may look back at 1993 as a frustrating year. Though few expected them to be in the position to return to the Super Bowl, with three weeks to go they were in the driver’s seat with a 6-1 record. The nar­row loss to Blue Hills sank their cham­pionship hopes, but not their desire, as Nantucket saw on Saturday.
Perhaps the proudest was Tillman, the senior running back, lineman and punter who was all-everything for the Vineyard on Saturday. As the Whalers paraded around midfield with the Island Cup, the tearful Vineyarder searched out Mr. Capizzo, who in turn embraced the Vineyard star. “Good game, Coach Capizzo,” Tillman said.
Tillman is one of several Vineyard seniors who leave behind a storied his­tory, including Super Bowl champi­onships in 1991 and 1992. Coach Herman’s seniors expected to win.
Mr. Herman was quiet following the game. He pointed a few remarks at the officials, whose controversial illegal procedure call forced the Vineyard into a field goal situation that proved unsuccessful. But it was not calls or mistakes that ate at Mr. Herman, it was losing to Nantucket and Mr. Ca­pizzo, the dreaded villains of Island football.
“This is a tough loss,” the coach said. He shook the hands of his assis­tants and headed to the locker room, where for the first time in three years, he gave his final postgame speech to a defeated team.