The signs around the high school all point toward a showdown.

Like the handwritten message taped to the wall inside the boys' locker room.

"10-game preseason is over. KHUNA Nantucket!!!"

Or the chants echoing in the halls, through the gymnasium and out into the crisp November air.

"Keep the Cup, keep the Cup, keep the Cup!"

Or, perhaps the grandest indicator of all, the large trophy that for each day this past week stood guard on the football field, watching over practice.

In case you haven't heard, the Nantucket game is here.

Let the battle for the Island Cup begin.

"It's KHUNA time," head coach Donald Herman yelled as his players made their way onto the field on Wednesday afternoon.

"KHUNA Nantucket," the players hollered back, amid shouts and whistles. Players banged helmets, pounded shoulder pads and hopped up and down.

KHUNA (Keep Hitting Until Nobody Answers) is Coach Herman's fighting mantra, and this week, like the end of every November, it has special meaning as the Vineyarders prepare for The Game: the yearly joust with the football team across Nantucket Sound.

"It's huge, it's why we play," Coach Herman said. "With the disappointing seasons both teams have had, it doesn't make it any less important to either of us. Our only goal now is to go over there and win."

While the winner of tomorrow's game on Nantucket won't be going to a Super Bowl, everyone knows the real victory is still in reach: bragging rights for another year.

"We all just want to bring the Cup back," senior center Gustavo (Goose) Simoes said.

Last season the Vineyarders won the Island Cup at home, 20-7 on their way to a Division V championship. Nantucket won the Cup in 2002, 25-20, the last time the two teams squared off on the other island.

The note in the locker room was the coach's not-so-subtle reminder to his team of the importance of this game, but few people on either Island need such reminders. The two rivals have battled for over 50 years. Historically, Nantucket has played the role of the Evil Empire: In head-to-head match-ups since 1953, Nantucket owns the Vineyard with a 35-19-3 record. Since the inception of the Island Cup in 1978, the Vineyard hasn't fared much better: Nantucket holds a 17-9 advantage.

But since Coach Herman took over in 1989, the tide has turned slightly. He is 8-8 against Nantucket head coach and arch-nemesis Vito Capizzo.

"He calls me the Snake, I call him the Cheater," Coach Herman said with a smile. "But it's a good rivalry, we have a good relationship."

Call it The Snake versus The Cheater, Volume 17, and a chance for Coach Herman to secure a winning record against the winningest active coach in Massachusetts.

"I'd like that," he said.

Since 1990, the two coaches have 13 Super Bowl berths between them, seven for the Vineyard and six for Nantucket. But for the first time in 14 years, this year's contest carries with it a rare insignificance: The Game has no postseason implications for either team.

"That says a lot about the dominance of these two programs," Coach Herman said. "There's a real tradition of excellence there. This year has definitely been a weird one."

Both teams are 2-2 in the Mayflower Large League this season, and the Vineyard comes into tomorrow's game with an atypical losing record, 4-6 overall. Nantucket's overall record is 5-4. Both are hoping a win tomorrow will help them finish second behind undefeated Blue Hills. Coach Herman expects an evenly matched game.

"They are actually a very similar team to us," he said. "Both teams run similar plays and rely primarily on strong running games." He believes his defense will have its work cut out for it.

"They have three good backs, and a tall, strong-armed quarterback too, so we'll have to be ready on all fronts."

Despite a season plagued with injuries, Coach Herman says his team is the healthiest it's been all year. Senior running back Kyle Robertson, hampered with foot injuries for most of the season, scored three touchdowns in last week's convincing 39-22 win against Bristol-Plymouth, and senior defensive "monster" Adam Petkus is back patrolling the secondary.

"That's one thing we have going for us, finally," Coach Herman said with a laugh.

For the entire week before The Game, the coach said he brought the Cup to the practice field not only to emphasize its importance, but to let something else sink in.

"I wanted to let them see how empty our trophy case looks without it," he said."I'm hoping we won't need to find inspiration anywhere else."

Maybe not, but last week's victory against Bristol-Plymouth wouldn't be a bad place to start.

"They played as a team, they played with heart, and that's what was missing this season," Coach Herman said. "I have been trying to get it through to them that our confidence is higher when we play as a team."

"Winning's contagious," he continued. "One of our coaches said it best: You know how to spell fun, don't you? W-I-N."