With all the hype surrounding tomorrow's Island Cup game between the Vineyard and Nantucket, it's easy to overlook that at its core, it's only a game.
Unlike in previous years, when the contest often determined whether the Vineyarders or the Whalers made the playoffs, the only thing on the line this year is bragging rights until the two teams lock horns again next November.
But don't tell that to any Vineyarder on the boat to Nantucket tomorrow morning, or you might find yourself at the bottom of the Sound. This was the first year the Whalers and Vineyarders played in different divisions - Nantucket was moved to the Mayflower League small due to declining enrollment - yet the Island Cup contest still has an extraordinary intensity.
"You can forget about records, you can forget about the playoffs, you can forget about everything else when it comes to this game," said Vineyard coach Donald Herman. "As far as we're concerned, this game is our Super Bowl."
Most accounts of bygone Island Cup games have focused on the fierce football rivalry that dates back over 50 years. Nantucket has traditionally dominated, posting a 35-21-3 record over the Vineyard in head-to-head match-ups since 1953. Since the inception of the Island Cup in 1978, the Vineyard hasn't fared much better: Nantucket holds a 17-11 advantage.
But one angle to the rivalry transcends records and final scores.
Football fans on either Island would be hard pressed to acknowledge it, but there is a certain sense of kinship that goes hand in hand with the game. Though punctuated by bone-jarring tackles and marinated in aggression, the game is still the closest thing to a family reunion the two Islands have. And while they might have been separated at birth by 16 miles of ocean, the sibling rivalry between the Vineyard and Nantucket is as strong as ever.
During the formative years of the rivalry, Nantucket played the part of the bullying big brother. The Vineyard suffered a steady stream of noogies and wedgies to the Whalers through the 1970s and 1980s, as Nantucket won nine of the first 10 Island Cups.
But in recent years, the little brother has grown up and learned to fight back. The Vineyard has won six of the last seven Island Cups, and a win on Saturday would be its fourth in a row, setting a new record. The bully has become the bullied.
"It's always been kind of a Hatfield and McCoy type of rivalry, but things have changed a bit over the past few years," said Bob Tankard, a former player and head coach of the Vineyarders.
Mr. Tankard has a unique perspective on the rivalry: he played in one of the first games against Nantucket in 1961, as a freshman on the newly created Martha's Vineyard Regional High School football team. (An all-star team, made up of players from the three high schools here, did play Nantucket in 1953 and 1954.)
Mr. Tankard said there was an instant rivalry between the two Islands, although it had a markedly different feel from today. The teams played each other twice a year from 1961 to 1971, he said, so the players got to know each other, and in many cases became friends.
"This was before the players flew over, so players from one Island would stay with the families of the players from the other Island," Mr. Tankard said. "You would wind up spending the whole weekend with [the other players], getting to know their families. So it was a little different feel when you met them on the field."
Mr. Tankard said the Vineyarders lost both games his freshman year, but beat the Whalers every game for the next three years.
"We were pretty good at first, and you could tell it really drove Nantucket crazy. We were still a new program and they had been around for a while," Mr. Tankard said.
That all changed when Vito Capizzo took over as Whalers coach in 1964, beginning a period of dominance over the Vineyard that lasted over 20 years. Two years after Coach Capizzo's arrival, the Whalers went undefeated, and they would go on to win 13 super bowls over the next three decades.
Mr. Tankard served as an assistant coach under John Bacheller in the 1970s and was head coach from 1980 to 1988, a period when Coach Capizzo's teams dominated the Vineyard. The Vineyarders beat the Whalers in 1977, and won their first Island Cup in 1985, but year in, year out, the Whalers clearly had the Vineyard's number.
Fast forward to the arrival of Coach Herman in 1989, a discipline-oriented coach who cut his teeth on big-time high school football in Savannah, Ga. Soon the tide turned significantly in favor of the Vineyard.
With last year's 27-12 win over the Whalers, a relatively ho-hum affair, Coach Herman's record is now 10-8 versus Coach Capizzo; the Vineyard coach will be looking to pad that advantage when the teams square off tomorrow on Nantucket.
This year the Vineyarders posted a 7-1 record overall and a 4-1 record in the Mayflower League Large. The Whalers went 6-4 overall and 4-1 in the Mayflower League Small. Neither team has the possibility of a postseason, so they're putting even more focus on the Island cup game.
Coach Herman this week has been giving his team not-so-subtle reminders of how important the game is. He has brought the coveted Cup, which stays with the winner all year, to all of the team's practices.
"The players already know how important this game is - I think they know how important it is before the season even starts," he said.
In school halls and in front of homes and businesses, signs have gone up with slogans like Harpoon the Whalers and Keep the Cup.
Fans have flocked to sporting goods stores to gobble up white and purple apparel. "People come in here and they want to know what kind of Vineyard gear we have, and they want to know how the team did this season," said Patrick Miner, whose family owns Sports Haven in Vineyard Haven. "Even if they don't know a lot about the team, they still want to know what chance [the Vineyard has] of beating Nantucket.
It's hard to say what kind of line a Las Vegas odds maker would give for tomorrow's game. Unpredictable things happen when these two teams meet - especially, for some unexplained reason, when the contest takes place on Nantucket.
Over the course of the rivalry, Nantucket has consistently played host to the more exciting, fantastic and sometimes bizarre Island Cup games, including Vineyard's 14-12 come-back win in 1992 in which the Vineyarders scored two touchdowns in less than five minutes for their first win on Nantucket in 20 years.
Then there was the so-called water boy game on Nantucket two years ago: E.J. Sylvia nailed a 29-yard field goal to give the Vineyarders an unlikely 21-20 come-from-behind win in a game some will remember for the closing seconds - when celebrating players, fans and a wayward water boy had to scramble off the field during the Whalers' last-second kickoff return.
Some fanatical Vineyarder fans would be just as happy to take a blowout win than to sweat out a closer contest that would be remembered for years.
"A win against Nantucket is a win," said Tom Pierce, the vice president of the Touchdown Club, the Vineyarders boosters. "I'll take it any way I can."
The Touchdown Club will be selling tickets for the fan boat in the main lobby at the regional high school today from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m., and again from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m.
The cost of a round-trip ticket is $30, and $20 for seniors and students. Tickets may also be purchased at the boat tomorrow morning before sailing for a cost of $30.
The ferry will depart the Steamship Authority terminal in Vineyard Haven promptly at 7 a.m. Saturday.