On Saturday, after two years of frustration and delay, Nantucket finally came back across the Muskeget Channel and down the placard-lined mean streets of Oak Bluffs to rekindle a rivalry that, simply by geography, is unlike any other in sports. It was worth the wait.
The day seemed custom-made for Island football, brisk and gusty in the 40s with a high ceiling of undulating clouds that evoked the sand dunes of warmer months. And the game finally matched the hype, with teams trading touchdowns in one of the most exciting Island Cup games in recent memory. It was the Vineyard team that held on for a 33-25 victory.
Despite only four yards of passing, the Vineyard put up those 33 points on the legs of senior standout quarterback Randall Jette, who ran for four touchdowns on the day, including a breathtaking 86-yard kickoff return, and a hard-nosed runningback committee led by seniors Brian Montambault and Chris Costello. The teams seemed evenly matched as Nantucket quarterback Taylor Hughes threw for 156 yards, mainly to the fleet-footed Duvaughn Beckford, and parried the Vineyard’s ground attack with a successful air offensive.
After an inspired national anthem by the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s Ashleen Cafarelli, the teams took to the field to the rousing strains of the Carmina Burana. It certainly felt more important than the other contests on the schedule.
Electing to receive the opening kickoff, the Vineyarders threatened to tip the game the way of recent lopsided Island Cup victories, easily marching 63 yards in a little over three minutes to their first score, capped by a signature 35-yard Jette keeper down the sidelines.
Nantucket responded quickly, however, with Hughes finding open receivers and Beckford finding open holes in the Vineyard defense as they drove the ball all the way to the Vineyard three-yard line before turning it over on a Hughes fumble. On the ensuing drive the Vineyard returned the favor, fumbling the ball on the 48, and Nantucket did not waste the opportunity, reaching paydirt in seven plays ending in a two-yard Michael Molta run.
After a missed extra point Nantucket made the mistake of putting the ball in the hands of the most explosive player on the field in kicking off to Jette. Fielding the ball at his own 14 yard line and exploiting the superior blocking of his teammates, Jette went into fifth gear down the sideline, leaving Whaler defenders in his wake. Eighty-six yards later the Vineyard was up 13-6.
“I told the blockers, ‘I’m going to go inside and then bounce it out,’” Jette told the Gazette after the game. “But this time I just saw a big hole inside so I just broke through and was gone from there. They blocked it perfectly; I couldn’t ask for anything else.”
Coach Herman said the play was pivotal.
“The kickoff return was the difference,” he said. “We talked about it all week, how special teams were going to be big today.”
After another Nantucket fumble on the ensuing drive, the Vineyard took over on the Nantucket 45. In four plays, including a 28-yard run by Costello, the senior runningbacks came through again, with Montambault scoring from four yards out. After a failed two-point conversion the Vineyard went up 19-6 with 5:27 left in the half.
But Nantucket wasn’t done. In a pairing that was becoming all too familiar to Vineyard fans, Hughes found Beckford for a 49-yard pickup on the next drive, bringing Nantucket all the way to the Vineyard two yard line before the senior quarterback punched it in just before halftime. After a faked extra point was broken up by the Vineyard’s Ken Handy, the score stood at 19-12 at the intermission.
After a lively half-time show which saw Nantucket and Vineyard cheerleaders duke it out at midfield and state representative Tim Madden deliver citations to the members of the Vineyard’s 1960 inaugural football squad (including an unforgettable celebration dance by Joe Araujo), the teams once again traded fumbles to begin the half.
Early in the second half, perhaps sensing that a victory on the Vineyard may require some sleight-of-hand, Taylor Hughes hit Andrew Benson in a sensational 53-yard fleaflicker trick play for the score. After Nantucket’s first successful extra point of the day, the game was suddenly tied at 19.
Nantucket had no answer for the Vineyarder ground attack, though. After another methodical ten-play, five-minute drive the Vineyard was up 26-19. Jette kept the ball on the touchdown run once more, this time from only a yard out. However, the drive came at a cost. On a roster already depleted by injuries, runningback Brian Montambault stayed on the ground after one particularly punishing run and left the game with an arm injury.
As the fourth quarter began, the action carried over to the fan section. When a cadre of shirtless, purple-chested rabblerousers streaked by the Whalers’ bench, Nantucket responded in kind with a Whaler-flag-waving fanatic who made it three-quarters of the way down the Vineyard sideline before being, er, interrupted by a member of the Vineyard hockey team. “Grab the harpoon!” one bloodthirsty fan yelled.
Refusing to go away, Nantucket answered once more with another Hughes touchdown with only 4:09 left in the game. Going for the win rather than the tie, Nantucket elected to go for two, a decision that resulted in a fumbled snap and a score of 26-25 with time winding down. On the following drive Jette almost singlehandedly put the game away, driving 52 yards and punching the ball in with 1:15 left.
Needing a touchdown and a two-point conversion to tie with 54 seconds left, the Whalers’ Hughes launched the ball downfield to the waiting arms of the Vineyard’s TJ Vangervan. As the clock wound down to all zeroes and with the final 33-25 plastered indelibly on the scoreboard, Jette hurled the ball into the stands as the crowd spilled onto the field. In the middle of it all, the Island Cup was held aloft.
For old-timers musing about whether the rivalry means as much as it used to, they needed only to look at the tear-smudged eye black of stunned Nantucket players as the final seconds ticked away or the beaming mugs of Vineyard seniors who lingered on the field long after the game to savor the victory.
For Jette, one such senior, the game was the culmination of a scintillating high-school career.
“This means everything,” he said afterwards, clutching his Great American Rivalry Series most valuable player award. “It means that all the work I put in for four years paid off. Granted it’s not the super bowl, but it’s our super bowl.”
For Coach John Aloisi of Nantucket, who starred in some of the classic mid-nineties shootouts that were echoed in Saturday’s frantic finish, it was a bittersweet return to a field where he captured two of his three Island Cups as a player.
“I couldn’t be prouder of these guys,” he said, his voice catching. “Congratulations to the Vineyard, they did a great job.”
Coach Herman had similarly warm words for Nantucket, saying that the game reminded him more of the classic shootouts of yesteryear than recent lopsided results.
“I think this will definitely help revive the rivalry,” he said.
He also had a word or two for those Vineyard faithful wondering whether there will be another Cup game next year: “Oh, absolutely.”