By Dan Guttenplan
---- — The biggest concern with the new high school playoff system heading into the season was that Thanksgiving rivalry games would lose their mystique.
Thanksgiving rivals that play in the same league, such as Triton and Pentucket, now play each other for the second time in a season on Turkey Day, and that’s if the Cape Ann League rivals don’t meet in the playoffs. Otherwise, they could meet for a third time on Thanksgiving.
Now that the Thanksgiving games are a week away, coaches and players have mixed emotions on the impact the new playoff system has had on Thanksgiving football.
“I think it’s lost its luster a little bit,” Amesbury coach Thom Connors said. “I still think the excitement around playing a rivalry game is high. But we’ve been out of playoff contention for three weeks, and Newburyport has been out for two. I think it has changed the ending to the season.”
Since 2007, the Amesbury-Newburyport Thanksgiving Day game has decided the Cape Ann League Small champion four times. This will be only the third time during that stretch in which the winner of the game is not crowned league champion.
Even with the new playoff system, Newburyport and Amesbury will continue to meet for the first time each season on Thanksgiving, unless they meet in the playoffs. Since Newburyport now plays in the CAL Kinney Division, and Amesbury is in the CAL Baker Division, the teams will not meet in the regular season.
Newburyport coach Ed Gaudiano believes the Amesbury matchup trumps anything else that might be at stake for the matchup. Newburyport lost to Amesbury 13-10 last season, and Amesbury clinched a playoff berth with the win.
“To the players on the team, they’ve been waiting for this since last year,” Gaudiano said. “Regardless of whether it’s for the playoffs or league championship, it’s always that way with us. The intensity of the rivalry is the biggest thing. It’s tough to lose a Thanksgiving game because it hangs with you for the whole year.”
Triton coach Pat Sheehan has been hyping up the second Pentucket game to his team ever since the Vikings fell to the eventual CAL Kinney Division champion Sachems 19-13 on September 28. Triton senior Mark Boyle, who leads all area receivers with 350 yards on the season, believes the way in which the first game ended — with Pentucket making a defensive stop inside its own 10-yard-line as time expired — only fuels the rivalry game.
“It’s obviously interesting playing again,” Boyle said. “That’s never happened before, but I think it’s a good opportunity to get them back. We can get some revenge. Obviously, it was a close game before.”
Pentucket figures to have less motivation heading into Thanksgiving for two reasons: the Sachems beat Triton in the first meeting between the teams, and they had their Super Bowl hopes dashed Saturday in a loss to Burlington in the Division 4 North final. Thus, Pentucket will play a game without any playoff implications for the first time all season on Thanksgiving.
Pentucket junior Jeff Porter, a halfback who has accumulated 550 rushing yards, 283 receiving yards and 13 total touchdowns this season, said the team’s recent playoff disappointment will be the last thing on his mind when he takes the field Thursday.
“No, I don’t think anything changes,” Porter said. “It’s still going to be our most intense game. We’re still big rivals. It was a good game before, this is going to be just as intense.”
While neither of the local rivalry games will offer the high stakes of a league championship, it certainly could be worse. The worst-case scenario in the new playoff system is if a team clinches a Super Bowl berth prior to its Thanksgiving Day matchup — which Pentucket could have done with a victory over Bedford last week — and then is forced to sandwich a Thanksgiving rivarly game with nothing at stake between the sectional final and Super Bowl.
“I can only speak from the perspective of what we went through this year,” Connors said. “I think it has changed the rivalry a little bit. The playoffs in theory are a good idea. But you take the possibility of a league title and going to the playoffs away from it.”