Ryan Fisher was airborne, bare fingers closing around the football intended for the blue-and-white challenger behind him as the fourth-quarter clock flicked from 00:28 to 00:27. The Vineyard senior collapsed backwards across the 10-yard line, football pressed to his chest, players dressed in purple starting to swarm around him, shouts exploding from the right side of the bleachers at Vito Capizzo Stadium on Nantucket.

“Keep the Cup! Keep the Cup!”

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Senior Ryan Fisher carries the ball. — Ivy Ashe

An interception earlier in the game, a juggernaut of a touchdown drive, and — of all things — a safety had brought the team to this moment, enabling the Vineyarders to hold off the Whalers 10-7 and making the Island Cup’s regularly scheduled visit to Nantucket nothing more than a day trip.

“At that point we knew we were going to win; we knew we were going to have it,” junior safety Jahmari Thomas said after the game.

Before then? “We were biting our nails,” said Laurie Turney, whose son Joe put up two of the 10 Vineyard points on a conversion in the second quarter. “We were all counting down right at the end.”

“It was a revisit to a typical MV-Nantucket Island Cup football game,” Vineyard head coach Donald Herman told the Gazette. “We’ve had a few years where we’ve just dominated the game.”

“A lot of people say they like this kind of ball game [better],” he continued, adding with a laugh, “I personally would like to have a large margin of win.”

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Junior Brandon Watkins runs downfield. — Ivy Ashe

But for the first time since the 1996 Island Cup, which ended in a 13-7 overtime win for Nantucket, the flow of the game was dictated by defensive maneuvers, ensuring the match would be more LSU-Alabama and less TCU-Baylor.

The morning of Nov. 19 dawned brisk and breezy as the varsity, junior varsity and junior high teams, along with hundreds of fans and families, two cheerleading squads, two youth hockey teams, and a few tourists, filed aboard the M/V Nantucket for a 7 a.m. departure. For most, the day had started even earlier — Terry Donahue, whose son Justin plays for the junior high team, came downstairs at four in the morning to find Justin and sister Mariah already dressed and ready to go.

Nantucket, by contrast, was the picture of a sleepy fishing town on arrival, a roost of pigeons on the roof of the dock walkway the only greeters for the Vineyard contingent as it filed into school buses and taxis to head up to the high school for the junior high and JV games.

Though the junior high team fell 32-10, the JV Vineyarders took a gritty 15-8 win, with sophomore Adonis Camby snagging a Whaler pass with 1:35 left in the game to preserve the victory in a convenient preview of the game to follow (indeed, as the triumphant JV players came off the field to give head coach Phil Hughes the traditional water-cooler bath, one spectator called “That’s our future!”).

The JV game was Hughes’s second victory over Nantucket this season, and ninth straight Island Cup win.

Half an hour before kickoff for the varsity matchup, the stands were filled to capacity, with fans wrapped in fleece blankets to protect against the wind chill. The opening notes of Shipping Up to Boston faded away on the loudspeaker as the team captains took to the field for the coin toss.

Upon winning the toss — presided over by state Rep. and Nantucketer Tim Madden — the Vineyarders deferred receiving the kickoff; Whaler Dylan O’Connor took the Liam Weston kick to the Nantucket 31 before being brought down by senior Jeremy Maciel.

Nantucket quarterback Taylor Hughes threatened to break the game open not thirty seconds in by rushing 56 yards on the next play, putting his team within 13 yards of the Vineyard goal. The Whalers pushed to the Vineyard 10, and a Hughes pass into end-zone territory seemed certain to put Nantucket on the scoreboard.

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JV players celebrate their win by dousing Coach Hughes. — Ivy Ashe

But senior Michael Montanile, usually seen racking up stats in the tackles column of the box score, intercepted Hughes’s throw on the one-yard line.

“Who knows what would have happened if they’d gone in and scored?” said Coach Herman. “The whole complexity of the game would have been completely different.”

“And then we went on a 13-minute, 99-yard drive,” he continued, speaking as though such an event is an everyday occurrence on the gridiron.

The 21-play drive stretched across the first and second quarters (in addition to the length of the football field), and accounted for nearly half of the plays run by the Vineyard offense (45 total) while nearly matching the total number of Whaler plays (23).

And though the Nantucket defense came close to forcing a turnover on downs on the 15th play, the march to the end zone was unstoppable. Once on the 27-yard line, senior quarterback Delmont Araujo threw to Jeremy Maciel — the lone Vineyard pass of the game — to put the team within seven yards of the Whaler goal line.

Two plays later, senior Tyler Araujo rushed for one yard — a fitting end to the humble yardage beginnings of the drive — to bring in the touchdown. Sophomore Joe Turney’s two-point conversion put the Vineyarders up 8-0.

The tight offensive scheme, which the Vineyarders used in their first two games only to drop for the rest of season, had been reinstalled only on Monday.

“I just felt like we could run the football against them,” said Coach Herman. “And we were going to use it, [although] we weren’t planning on using it the entire game . . . but when you get the ball on the one-yard line, your options are kind of limited.”

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Senior Tyler Araujo is awarded Game MVP . — Ivy Ashe

With the football now back in Nantucket hands, the Vineyard defense stepped into battle, forcing a punt almost immediately. The Whaler linemen were up to the challenge, however, and pushed the Vineyard to fourth and 12, at which point Ryan Fisher stepped in to punt the ball all the way back to the one-yard line. At the end of the game, Fisher cited not his game-preserving interception, but rather this second-quarter punt as the favorite of his plays.

“I’ve done it in practice,” he said, “But not in a game.”

With the ball safely out of scoring range for the time being, the Vineyarders took a well-earned break for halftime, which saw Michael Montanile recognized by the Great American Rivalry series as the team’s top scholar-athlete, and alum Mike McCarthy (MVRHS ’09, now playing at Bridgewater State) inducted into the Great American Rivalry Hall of Fame.

The third quarter picked up with more punts, more tackles, and more back-and-forths. Carries by Fisher, junior Brandon Watkins, and Tyler Araujo moved the Vineyarders to the Nantucket 23; Watkins then hauled a Delmont Araujo handoff to first and goal on the Nantucket two-yard line with less than a minute left in the quarter. The Vineyarders set up for a scoring drive.

But if there is one lesson to be learned from the Island Cup, it’s that there are no certainties in football.

The Whaler defense, gaining momentum ever since the end of the first Vineyard drive, was now at full strength, and blocked the score twice. The third quarter ended with the ball on the Nantucket one-yard line, and the Vineyarders gearing up for fourth and goal.

And when the fourth quarter began, the team was denied yet again. Nantucket lineman Alex Rezendes was credited with the stop.

“After that first drive, our guys settled down and played some great defense,” said Nantucket coach Bill Manchester in a phone interview. “You [the Vineyard] go up two touchdowns and it could have gotten out of hand.”

In the end, the Vineyard would only go up by two, on a safety shortly after the Whaler end-zone stop.

But Nantucket began a drive of their own, pushing towards the end zone on a handful of Taylor Hughes-helmed plays. With 3:34 left in the quarter and Nantucket on fourth and 9 at the Vineyard 35-yard line, Hughes threw to senior Codie Perry to put the Whalers at the Vineyard seven.

Hughes ran the ball himself on an up-the-middle play to put the ball in the end zone on the next play. Senior Whaler Sam Earle kicked the extra point to make the score 10-7.

Though the Vineyard made another push downfield, Nantucket took the ball back with 1:53 left.

“At the very end of the game, I felt good about our chances,” said Coach Manchester. “We still had a time-out . . . even if we had gotten 10 yards closer, we could get a field goal and tie the game.”

But Ryan Fisher’s hands found the football instead.

The team poured on to the field, chest-bumping and hugging, cheering as Tyler Araujo, with his touchdown run, five tackles (and one sack), and seemingly innumerable carries, was named the MVP of the Great American Rivalry game; lifting Donald Herman onto their shoulders as he held up the glass Rivalry trophy; crowding around the Island Cup itself as senior Denver Maciel planted a big kiss on the hardware, and marching back to the locker room with the tags still dangling from their new winners’ baseball hats.

Winning is exhausting, though, and the return boat trip was quiet, all things considered, until the M/V Nantucket came back to the SSA dock, where the siren whoops of ambulances and fire trucks and the raucous cheers of the Vineyard welcoming committee could be heard even through the walls of the ferry.

The excited voice of one unknown passenger in the stairwell spoke for the entire boat — football teams and fans alike.

“This is the best part.”