NANTUCKET - If not for a couple of yards, it might have been a game for the ages, recounted in coffee haunts, barber shops and summer barbecues for generations to come.
But when Martha’s Vineyard high school quarterback Mike Snowden fumbled the ball in overtime on the Nantucket two-yard line Saturday, another great Island Cup showdown was over and the Whalers escaped with a 13-7 win.
This was a bizarre, hard-fought game with more strange twists than an Elmore Leonard thriller.
Trailing 7-0, the Vineyard sent the game into overtime with less than one minute to play in regulation, when Snowden connected with receiver Ben Connelly, who blew past three Nantucket defenders and into the end zone.
In high school overtime, each team gets four downs to score from the 10-yard line, and the team scoring the most points wins. Nantucket took the ball first and scored on its second play, when quarterback David Secia hit Tim Psaradelis in the left corner of the end zone.
Still, an extra point attempt blocked by Peter Lambos gave the Vineyard an opportunity.  A touchdown, plus an extra point, would win the game. But on the Vineyard’s second overtime play, Snowden was hit hard at the two-yard line, the ball came loose and Nantucket recovered.
Vineyard coach Donald Herman protested the call, charging that Snowden was already down when the fumble occurred. But as he chastised game officials, Nantucket players celebrated the win, chanting “Super Bowl! Super Bowl!” to the nearly 3,000 fans at Burnham Dell Field.
Indeed, the win gives Nantucket a berth in the Division 5B championship; next Saturday, the Whalers host Boston English in Nantucket.
The game ended the Vineyard’s season on a deflating three-game losing skid. After starting the season 7-0 - and becoming a Cinderella team in the eyes of football pundits throughout the state Ñ the Vineyard turned into a pumpkin, dropping consecutive contests to Weston, Bristol-Plymouth and Nantucket.
But this was a young team, and should be a consensus favorite when all but four departing seniors return for the 1997 season. It is fair to say that the Vineyard overachieved this year and provided Island fans a sizable plate of excitement on autumn Saturdays.
“It was a great year, a great ride for us,” said Vineyard coach Donald Herman. “I think we played a hell of a football game and earned a lot of respect.”
Perhaps, but this loss to Nantucket will be recalled for its could-haves, would-haves and lost opportunities. For the first time in several years, the Vineyard had a serious crack at winning the game and heading to the Super Bowl, but the Whalers prevailed for the fourth consecutive time and kept their stranglehold on the Island Cup.
Nantucket coach Vito Capizzo, the grizzled, pipe-smoking leader who has achieved near-legend status on his island, said his team was lucky to escape. He was right. The Whalers made plenty of mistakes - fumbles, blown calls, dropped interceptions - but somehow found a way to win.
“It was an ugly win,” Mr. Capizzo said, gnawing at his pipe. “We shot ourselves in the foot plenty of times. But we will take it.”
After the game, there was grumbling from the Vineyard sidelines about the game officiating. Mr. Herman felt robbed of a touchdown early in the first quarter, when Connelly caught a pass in the left corner of the end zone, but was ruled out of bounds. Another Vineyard drive was stopped when a referee (incorrectly) called an incomplete Snowden pass a fumble instead, allowing Nantucket to recover the ball.
But the Vineyard had its breaks, too. Nantucket coughed the ball up twice inside the Vineyard 10-yard line, the second time when running back Bobbie King was ruled to have fumbled, even when the ball clearly squirted loose after he hit the ground.  And the Vineyard’s late fourth-quarter drive was aided by a dubious pass interference penalty which moved them into Nantucket territory.
To be sure, this was not a classic football game, played well on both sides. As Mr. Capizzo said, it was ugly. It was ugly, gritty, dusty and sloppy. Turnovers abounded, and predicted stars, like Mr. King, didn’t have big games.
Still, the Vineyard drive to regain the lead was a classic. Snowden, who faced heavy pressure from the Nantucket defense all day, marched his team downfield from its own 20-yard line. The two pass interference calls helped, but the biggest boost came from Connelly, the 6’5” junior receiver with soft hands and surprisingly nimble feet. On the game-tying play, Connelly caught the ball on a post pattern and dusted the Nantucket secondary for six points.
Connelly is among several key players who are expected to return to the Vineyard varsity in 1997. Snowden and Lambos will be back, as will talented tail backs Ben Higgins and Andrew Nourse. And the bulk of the Vineyard defense will also come back to what should be one of the best Island teams in recent years. Four players are expected to graduate: Asil Cash, Danny Cassidy, Tony Sirotnak and Ryan Lehman.