NANTUCKET - The Vineyard football team wasn't even supposed to be here, the gridiron gods tell us. They weren't supposed to be playing for the Island Cup, the Mayflower League conference title and a Super Bowl berth versus Nantucket. Heck, they were supposed to be playing for third place.

But here the Vineyard was, on a warm Saturday in Whaler country, and they ran smack into an oncoming train. Nantucket powered its way to a 23-7 win, providing a dose of reality to the Vineyarders' overachieving 7-3 season.

"Our kids played hard," said Vineyard head coach Donald Herman. "But Nantucket was a better team, plain and simple. They are the best Nantucket team I've seen in the seven years I have coached here.

"But I think this was a positive season for us. Look at where we started - we were 1-2 and on the verge of an unsuccessful season. We were able to turn it around."

Make that almost turn it around. Saturday's game started well for the Vineyard, as junior Blair Araujo grabbed the opening kickoff and high-stepped 85 yards to the Nantucket seven-yard-line. Two plays later, Travis Davis powered in from six yards out for a touchdown, but you can almost stop the Vineyard highlight film there.

Nantucket simply dominated. Fresh from a close win over league doormat Southeastern, the Whalers took no chances against the Vineyard. They played a straightforward, run and play-action pass offense, beating the Vineyard up in the trenches.

"I really thought we would do a better job of controlling the line of scrimmage," Mr. Herman said. "I really did not think they would match up with us on the line like they did."

After blowing several opportunities, Nantucket led only 9-7 at the half, and Mr. Herman was grateful. But the second half was all Whalers, as they scored on their first possession and again in the fourth quarter to post a 23-7 lead.

Despite Nantucket's domination, the almost 600 Vineyard fans in attendance would not make an early exit for the ferry boat. They remembered the Island Cup of 1992, when the Vineyard recovered from a 12-0 deficit to win 14- 12 in the game's closing minutes.

But on this day, there would be no miracle comeback, no 14-point surge with three minutes remaining like in 1992. Former quarterback Jason Dyer was in street clothes on the sidelines, now a star at Fitchburg State, and could inly watch as the Whalers devoured junior signal caller Rob Dickson.

Playing in his first Nantucket contest, Dickson played with the most courage he has shown all season. While he never managed to show his considerable skills – his good field vision, his strong arm – he showed something else. The Whalers knocked him down countless times, and on each occasion he jumped up and dusted himself off. Lesser quarterbacks would have stayed on the ground.

Mr. Herman pinned some of Saturday's problems on butterflies and jitters. “I think some of the kids were overwhelmed,” he said. “They had not played in that environment before, and they did not respond as well as they could have.”

Make no mistake about this loss. This was not a loss to reflect upon and second guess – the Vineyard didn't lose by making mental mistakes or bad coaching decisions. Nantucket was better, period. “They were very good,” Mr. Herman admitted.

After the final whistle, there was the expected outburst of cheering from Nantucket fans, but the Whaler players were almost businesslike as they lined up for a postgame handshake. The Island Cup and the Mayflower League championship were theirs, but those were expected spoils. Nantucket was the league favorite from day one, and the Vineyard was just another stop on their road to an undefeated season.

Standing at midfield, Whaler coach Vito Capizzo handed out verbal laurels to his players and the Vineyard. Mr. Capizzo, who had been hospitalized only 24 hours before with a bleeding ulcer, was uncharacteristically soft-spoken, almost gracious. “The Vineyard is a tough team,” he said. “They played their hearts out."

What looms for his Whalers is the Super Bowl, a December showdown with Division 5 opponent Tyngsboro. And while Mr. Capizzo has seen great success with the Island Cup, the Super Bowl is his albatross - he's won it only once in the four times he has been there.

For the Vineyard and Mr. Herman, it's back to the drawing board to plan the 1995 season. The Vineyarders will lose a number of talented seniors - including all-league linemen Aaron Belanger, Greg Belcher, Adam deBettencourt and wide out Sandy Fisher - but they have a sizable freshman class ready to step in.

"Right now, I see us as a predominantly senior-sophomore team next year," Mr. Herman said. "We are going to be the S and S boys."

The two-and-a-half hour boat ride home from Nantucket was a time to reflect, to replay The Game's early moments and think of what could have been.

Unlike 1992, there would be no victory party or cannon shots awaiting them in Vineyard Haven harbor.

But they Vineyard should be spared any criticism or guilt. Vito Capizzo is right: The Vineyarders played their hearts out on Saturday, and played proud. They weren't expected to be there, but they showed they deserved to be.