Making the Picks
---- — I’ve never minded working on Thanksgiving because it always seems to put the entire football season in the proper perspective. Missing it would be like walking out of a movie theater 10 minutes before the end of the movie to beat the traffic.
Alumni and proud parents fill the stadiums on Thanksgiving, and there’s always a great deal of discussion of previous Thanksgiving matchups. You’ll hear about the beginning of the Amesbury-Newburyport rivalry in the 1800s, and then you’ll hear about Amesbury’s 99-6 victory over Newburyport in 1951. A Newburyport alumni who played in the 1970s will tell you about how it wasn’t even a competitive rivalry in his day. And you might find an Amesbury alumnus from 2007 or 2008 who will tell the story of how the Indians kept the Clippers out of the postseason.
Those stories set the proper tone for the day.
As football coaches and players reflect on their careers — or even particular seasons — it always seems to start with a Thanksgiving Day memory. A team can add an exclamation point to an already successful season with a strong holiday performance. On the other hand, a struggling team can limp to the finish with a disappointing performance against its biggest rival.
Tomorrow’s games, more than any other game this season, will dictate how the local teams, coaches and players will be remembered. Take Amesbury, for instance. The Indians have had an “absolutely fabulous” season to date, in the words of coach Thom Connors. A Thanksgiving Day win over Newburyport would reinforce that belief, while a loss would put an asterik next to the team’s strong finish in October and November.
With a win, Newburyport could erase all of the frustration accrued from the loss of its star quarterback Connor Wile due to a shoulder injury last spring. Wile is back, and the Clippers would get a clean slate for the postseason.
Triton has been through a difficult 1-9 season, and an even tougher week due to off-the-field issues. However, who would remember any of that with a Thanksgiving upset of Pentucket? And what about Pentucket? At 5-5, tomorrow’s game will be the difference between a winning season and a losing one.
As I make my final picks for the regular season, I consider how I believe each team will be remembered.
Newburyport at Amesbury
I think one of the best stats from Amesbury’s season is that kicker Mac Short is 33 for 33 in extra-point attempts. It sounds like an easy feat to accomplish, but I’ve seen enough high school football to know it’s not. There are countless things that can go wrong on an extra point. At least a dozen times per season, I see a bad snap result in a botched kick. I also see as many instances in which the offensive line confuses a blocking assignment resulting in a blocked kick. And I see just as many examples of kickers simply missing kicks. To convert 33 consecutive extra points, it takes more than a kicker who can hit from 20 yards on a regular basis. A high school team needs to be extremely organized. The right player has to be taking the kicks from the start of the season. The offensive line needs to be able to hold its blocks, even when the one point could be the difference in the game, as it was for Amesbury in last week’s 21-20 win over Pentucket. And the snapper-holder-kicker chemistry has to be perfect all season.
The word “chemistry” keeps coming up with this Amesbury team, much like it did in 2008 when the team won a Super Bowl. As you watch the Indians, if you ignore the faces and the numbers on the jerseys, the execution at times looks almost identical to that of the last Super Bowl champion. There are other stats more impressive than the extra-point example. For instance, Matt Talbot has accounted for 25 touchdowns, the Indians have averaged 35.3 points during their seven-game winning streak, and the squad responded to its two-game losing streak early in the season by beating its next five opponents by an average of 29.5 points. My point with the extra-point statistic is that this Amesbury team doesn’t slip. It’s a focused bunch, and I believe that legacy will be reinforced on Thanksgiving.
On the other hand, Newburyport never really fully hit its stride this season. It started with Wile’s injury, which was devastating to a team looking to repeat its Division 3A title. Wile passed for 2,006 yards and 21 touchdowns last season, and the Clippers expected more of the same during his senior season. Instead, they struggled to a 3-3 record as they waited for Wile to return, and even when he did, he was not the player who would often drop back 30 times per game last fall. He was limited at first, and he is just now starting to gain full flexibility and range in his shoulder.
Could I see Wile make a big step forward with 10 days between his last game and tomorrow’s kickoff? Sure. He only returned to action Oct. 19, so an extra 10 days won’t do anything but help. But if we’re going with the theme that Thanksgiving Day games cement legacies for seasons, I’m going with Amesbury to potentially make a Super Bowl run, and Newburyport to fall just short.
The pick: Amesbury 21, Newburyport 16
Triton at Pentucket
Triton’s season has been a prolonged struggle. The Vikings started the season with one starter returning from last year’s team. Coach Pat Sheehan’s spread offense is as complicated as any in the league. When it is clicking, it can be unstoppable. But the complexity of the scheme also makes it difficult to integrate a couple of new starters per season, let alone 10. The Vikings started 1-1 before dropping their last eight, but there have been some signs of hope lately. For one, Bradley Whitman has overcome some inconsistent play at midseason to solidify his spot as the starting quarterback of the future. The Vikings are finally clicking on offense; they scored 27 points in their last game against Saugus. But I believe the biggest take-away from this season will be Triton’s success at the sub-varsity level. Two years from now, as we size up the Thanksgiving matchups, I think we might mention the fact that this year’s Triton junior varsity team went undefeated, culminating with a 42-13 victory over Pentucket last weekend.
Pentucket has had an up-and-down season with undersized offensive and defensive lines. However, the Sachems might boast the best player in the conference in Cody Rothwell. The power tailback has rushed for 1,406 yards and 18 touchdowns in 10 games. He follows great Pentucket backs like Nolan Dragon and Nate Bunnell. My guess is, a couple of years from now, we’ll include Rothwell’s name in the discussion as we mention the next great Pentucket tailback.
The pick: Pentucket 37, Triton 14
Georgetown at Manchester Essex
Georgetown’s season will be remembered for injuries to its top players. Early in the season, Georgetown lost star quarterback Niko Edwards and leading rusher Tim Dillon. For a small school, it’s difficult to overcome one injury, let alone two to the best two players. A win at Manchester Essex would certainly put a positive spin on the season for Georgetown coach Paul Sobolewski. Manchester Essex coach Mike Athanas will be looking to finish his season with wins in two of his last three.
The pick: Manchester Essex 22, Georgetown 6
Last week’s record: 3-1
Overall record: 32-13