It was a triumphant return to form for the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School football team in 2008.
After a run of successful but ultimately frustrating seasons, the Island team dominated its Mayflower League Large opponents and went undefeated in the conference, earning a berth in the Division 3A Eastern Massachusetts playoffs for the first time in five years.
Not long ago, the Vineyarders won the conference title with such frequency it became almost expected. They won six out of seven league championships from 1997 to 2003 — including five in a row at one point — and won three Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association divisional Superbowls: in 1997, 1999 and 2003.
But recently the team hit a post-season dry spell, even though they continued to play well. In the highly competitive Mayflower League Large there is little room for error; the Vineyarders often missed the playoffs by a single game.
They turned that trend around this season by going 9-1 overall with a perfect 6-0 record in the conference, in the process earning a berth in the Division 3A Eastern Massachusetts playoffs. Perhaps it is fitting they won the conference title this year after a prolonged drought, as this year will be the last in this league.
Last week officials from the Eastern Athletic Conference voted unanimously to accept Vineyard sports teams into their athletic conference — including football. The Vineyarders will start playing in their new conference next season.
But they made the most out of their final trip through the Mayflower League Large.
Quarterback Mike McCarthy surpassed the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in a season since Ben Higgins did it in 1997, and the team scored payback wins against conference foes Blue Hills and Cape Cod Tech, two teams that beat the Vineyarders last year to shut them out of the playoffs.
Oh . . . and did we mention the Vineyard plays Nantucket tomorrow in the Island Cup?
In a season in which the Vineyarders returned to the playoffs and the Whalers went 0-7 and barely fielded enough players to fill a roster, the annual battle between the Island rivals has certainly lost some of its luster.
But tomorrow’s game on Nantucket remains the battle for the storied Island Cup. It is still the Vineyarders versus the Whalers, the purple and white versus the gray and blue, the Island version of the Yankees versus Red Sox. Even with the Whalers a clear underdog, this is still The Game.
Hundreds of Vineyard fans will travel across the Sound tomorrow by boat and plane to attend the game, and the Whalers home crowd will be as rabid as ever. And who knows? Nantucket may surprise some people. Strange things happen in football, and crazy things have been known to happen in the Island Cup.
As one dedicated Vineyard fan said earlier this week, it’s okay to be confident going into tomorrow’s game, but not too confident. “If Nantucket wins I’ll swim back to the Vineyard,” he said, adding: “I’m bringing my swim trunks . . . just in case.”
Here is a recap of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School football team’s 2008 season.
Vineyard 14, Old Rochester 0
The Vineyarders got off to a solid start on Sept. 12 with a convincing, no-nonsense 14-0 win over familiar rival Old Rochester on a rainy night in Mattapoisett.
The Vineyarders quickly established an offensive style that would be used all season, as senior quarterback Mike McCarthy ran the option play and scored two rushing touchdowns. A steady rain fell throughout the game making for soggy field conditions, but the Vineyarders’ defense was able to clamp down and shut down the Bulldogs’ attack.
The slippery conditions caused both teams to fumble all game, but the Vineyarders did a better job of capitalizing on their opponent’s mistakes. The defense played well, as Nick Gross, Matt Costello and Thomas Tilton-Heylin (playing his first varsity game) were especially strong.
Carver 23, Vineyard 21
In their only blemish of the season, the Carver Crusaders on Sept. 20 took the lead with seconds left on the clock to hand the Vineyarders a deflating 23-21 loss, their first and only defeat of the season.
Both teams had late-game heroics, as the Vineyarders drove the field and scored with 1:38 on the clock when Mike McCarthy hit Nick Gross in the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown pass. But the Crusaders stormed right back and tied the game on a 35-yard touchdown run by Brandon Holbrook.
The Crusaders then made the two-point conversion to take the lead. McCarthy finished with three touchdowns, two through the air and one on the ground. He connected with Doug Asselin just before the break for a 26-yard reception to give the Vineyarders a 14-7 advantage at the half.
Vineyard 43, Bishop Connolly 0
In perhaps their best game of the season, the Vineyarders dominated on offense and defense and won going away against Bishop Connolly by a final of 43-0 on Sept. 26 in front of a frenzied home crowd.
Cody Brewer returned the opening kickoff 85 yards for a touchdown to give the Vineyarders an early lead, and the Cougars never recovered. The Vineyarders led big at the break and coach Donald Herman emptied his bench in the second half.
McCarthy passed for 129 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for a third. Matt Costello carried the ball for 60 yards and made two catches for 105 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown in the first quarter. He also had an interception on defense. Nick Gross ran for a five-yard touchdown and Lamar Moreis ran a punt back 50 yards for a touchdown. Kicker Brooks Billingham continued to shine by going five-for-five on point-after attempts.
Vineyard 28, Holbrook 14
Mike McCarthy led his team to a victory once again against Holbrook/Avon on Oct. 3, scoring three rushing touchdowns to power his team to a 28-14 win on the road.
McCarthy pitched the ball to running backs Pat Hart, Fin Kaeka and Cody Brewer on some plays while keeping the ball on others. He scored his third rushing touchdown in the second quarter from the six-yard line to seemingly put the game out of reach, although the Bulldogs clawed their way back with a touchdown and two-point conversion in the third quarter to make the game interesting.
But the Vineyarders put the game on ice in the fourth quarter when McCarthy ran 15 yards down the sideline before pitching to Nick Gross, who notched a 49-yard touchdown. McCarthy finished with 17 rushes for 152 yards, 135 in the first half. Erik Dolliver made seven unassisted tackles and assisted on six more. Costello had four unassisted and three assisted tackles while breaking up four pass plays.
Vineyard 37, Southeastern 0
The Vineyarders won their third consecutive league game on Oct. 18 with another business-like win against Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical School at Easton by a final of 37-0. Cody Brewer had another strong game with two touchdowns. Mike McCarthy continued to shine with three touchdowns, two on the ground and one through the air. Receiver Randall Jette had a pair of touchdown catches.
Vineyard 42, Charlestown 8
The Vineyarders celebrated homecoming with a win against Charlestown on Oct. 25, scoring early and often en route to a 42-8 drubbing. Mike McCarthy had touchdown runs of 1, 3 and 3 yards. Matt Costello had a 19-yard touchdown run in the first quarter; Cody Brewer finished with 136 yards on 10 carries and scored on a 75-yard kickoff return.
As if that weren’t enough, Brewer was named homecoming king at halftime, along with homecoming queen Sophie Lew.
Vineyard 35, Cape Tech 8
The Vineyarders were scary good at home against Cape Cod Tech on Halloween night Oct. 31, easily defeating their conference rival 35-8 and taking one step closer to making the playoffs.
Both the Crusaders and the Vineyarders were undefeated in the Mayflower League Large heading into the game, and on paper the two teams seemed evenly matched. But perhaps surprisingly, the Vineyard dominated the game from start to finish.
Mike McCarthy threw for three touchdowns and ran for another, going 6-for-11 passing and 145 yards rushing. Erik Dolliver scored on runs of 18 and 5 yards and finishing with 121 yards on 15 carries. The Vineyarders defense again dominated, holding the Crusaders scoreless for much of the game until a third quarter score by quarterback Mike Hamilton.
Vineyard 28, Blue Hills 12
In the key game of their season, one with serious Division 3A playoff implications, the Vineyarders went on the road Nov. 7 in front of a hostile crowd and turned back a strong Blue Hills squad, winning 28-12 to clinch at least share of the Mayflower League Large title.
The win was especially rewarding for the Vineyarders because it knocked out a Warriors team that beat them last year to end their hopes of reaching the playoffs. The Warriors were also criticized during the game for dirty play; one Crusaders player was reportedly reprimanded for poking a Vineyarder in the eye and talking trash.
Blue Hills managed to slow the Vineyarders option attack but were unable to stop it entirely, as McCarthy ran the ball 17 times for 91 yards and two touchdowns.
McCarthy scored from four yards out to give the Vineyard a 13-0 lead at the break, and he scored again in the third quarter to make it 21-6 and put the game on ice. Blue Hills would add a late touchdown, but the Vineyarders recovered a fumble and four plays later Cody Brewer scored on a 51-yard touchdown run.
Vineyard 42, South Shore 22
In their last game as a member of the Mayflower League Large, the Vineyarders easily defeated conference opponent South Shore 42-22 Nov. 14 to clinch the conference title outright. In the win Mike McCarthy surpassed the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the season.
The Vikings tied the game again at 14 just before the half, but the Vineyarders stormed right back when Brewer returned a kickoff 56 yards with less then a minute left on the clock. Nick Gross then caught a 15-yard scoring pass from McCarthy to put the Vineyarders ahead 22-14.
The offensive line had one of its best games of the season, led by center Christian Flanders. Zach Maciel had a strong game on defense, and the versatile Brewer made seven tackles on defense.