By Dan Guttenplan
---- — Ed Gaudiano laughs as he considers a question regarding how Amesbury coach Thom Connors has evolved since he served as an assistant on the Newburyport staff from 1994 to 2000.
“He’s gotten a lot more ornery on the sideline, I think,” says Gaudiano, who has coached Newburyport since 1988. “He’s a great game-day coach. He has some good calls on the sideline. He knows how to manage a game. He’s always had that. I think that’s what he does best.”
Gaudiano will coach against his former assistant for the 11th time on Thanksgiving Day. Connors took over the head job at Amesbury in 2002, and has since led the Indians to a record of 57-63 over 11 seasons. Gaudiano’s Clippers have posted a 6-4 record over Connors’ Indians on Thanksgiving, although Connors’ teams won the only two battles in which a playoff berth was decided by the winner of the game in 2007 and 2008.
That will be the stakes tomorrow when Amesbury (8-2 overall, 4-0 CAL) hosts Newburyport (6-4 overall, 3-1 CAL) at Landry Stadium for the 90th meeting between the schools. Amesbury has already clinched a share of the Cape Ann League Division 3 championship. Newburyport can split the title with a win, and advance to the Eastern Mass. Division 3A postseason for the second year in a row. Last year, the Clippers fell to Hamilton-Wenham one game shy of the Super Bowl at Gillette Stadium.
Gaudiano holds an overall career record of 160-107, which includes a 14-10 mark against Amesbury. He believes the Thanksgiving rivalry offers plenty of motivation for the players, without even factoring playoff berths, league titles or former coaching allegiances.
“I can’t remember what went on last week, but I know in 2007 and 2008, we didn’t win those games,” Gaudiano said. “One year, our quarterback Joe Clancy couldn’t play, so that was an interesting game. But I don’t think this game needs that hype. It’s still Thanksgiving, it’s still a league championship, and Amesbury already has a share. We’d like our share too.”
As the offensive coordinator under Gaudiano, Connors was a member of two Super Bowl champion teams in 1995 and 1997. The Clippers went to another Super Bowl and lost in 1998. In 2001, Connors left the Clipper staff to take a year off from coaching. He took the Amesbury job in 2002; the Indians have since won one Super Bowl title (2008). The Clippers have yet to win a title since Connors was a member of the staff.
The playoff schedule
The winner of tomorrow’s game will play the winner of the Thanksgiving showdown between North Reading (8-1, 4-0) and Lynnfield (7-2, 4-0) in the opening round of the Division 3A playoffs Tuesday night. Should Newburyport or Amesbury advance in that game, the local team will play in the Division 3A Super Bowl Saturday, Dec. 1, at 8 p.m. at Gillette Stadium.
Amesbury has won its last seven games, a streak that extends back to Sept. 21. The Indians have averaged 35.3 points per game during that stretch. It is Amesbury’s first seven-game winning streak since its Super Bowl season in 2008.
“I think our senior class really stepped up and matured from their junior year to their senior year,” Connors said. “Starting last spring, they really came together. It’s been a fabulous year. It’s been special, and that was always the expectation. It’s been one of the best years I’ve had in my coaching career.”
On the other hand, Newburyport lost its last game to Winthrop Nov. 11. Before that loss, the Clippers had won four in a row. The Clippers struggled to a 3-3 non-league record this season due, in part, to the absence of quarterback Connor Wile. The senior set program records for single-season passing yards and touchdowns as a junior, but suffered an injury to his shoulder during last baseball season.
“I think it’s fair to say we haven’t established momentum in our season,” Gaudiano said. “Hopefully, it’s our turn to get momentum. If we’ve done anything all year, besides not getting momentum, it’s that we’ve been in and battled every game. We’re used to that. I hope we get a hard-hitting game. We’ve learned to keep battling, and if we’re in the game in the fourth quarter, we have a chance to win.”
By air or by feet
Typically a pass-heavy offense, Newburyport shifted to more of a run-based philosophy this season due to Wile’s injury. The Clippers have picked up 1,368 yards on the ground compared to 832 in the air. By comparison, Amesbury has picked up 1,902 yards on the ground and 1,148 in the air.
Both coaches stressed that their respective defenses will have to account for both the pass and run.
“I’m looking at them as a very good football team,” Connors said. “They have good size up front. They run the ball and block well. They have speed in the backfield. They have the ability to throw. I watched Connor (Wile) for the last three games, and I know he’s ready to play at full strength.”
Gaudiano believes his team’s defense needs to center its game plan around Amesbury quarterback Matt Talbot.
“Offensively, Amesbury gives us more problems by the nature of the things they’re doing than we’ve seen all year,” Gaudiano said. “They have a great balance between the pass and run. They have an ability to spread the field. They have good athletes; it’s dangerous. We consider Talbot first. He’s a guy who can pass and run. (Devlin) Gobeil has proven he can catch the ball. They have guys who can beat you out in space, and they have a real good fullback (Perry Mroz) who keeps you honest.”
Even higher stakes
The mayors of Newburyport and Amesbury have placed a wager on the game, according to Amesbury Mayor Thatcher Kezer.
“I’m looking forward to a cherry pie from (Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday),” Kezer said. “That’s our wager, a cherry pie, an American red cherry pie.”
Kezer said an Amesbury player suggested the switch from an apple pie, which had been the winning prize in the past.
“I’ve had to give away a few apple pies the last couple of years, so I’m looking forward to hopefully being on the receiving end of the pie exchange this year,” Kezer said.