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Thanksgiving football very different this year, but new system on right track

Posted by Adam Kaufman  November 26, 2013 02:22 AM

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It used to be easy.

Thanksgiving Day in Massachusetts signified high school football. It was a day for decades-long rivalries, where undefeated seasons, roughly 70 playoff spots, and dozens of league titles potentially hung in the balance for hundreds of small communities across the Commonwealth.

For many towns, and most especially the seniors on the field, it was the biggest day of the year; their version of The Game, without the Ivy League exclusivity.

Now, things aren’t so simple.

As a result of the state’s new playoff format that kicked off this season and is in the first of a two-year trial period, the significance of the Thanksgiving game isn’t quite the same. The postseason began for 160 teams early this month and is now over for all but 12, who are set to clash in six Super Bowl title contests at Gillette Stadium on Saturday, Dec. 7. One true winner will represent each of the state’s divisions, a stark contrast to a previous system that awarded an unnecessarily-high 19 schools as champions.

The new system – with its seven-week regular season and four-week playoff (or exhibition season for non-qualifiers) – isn’t perfect, but it’s a large step in the right direction. Changes to the prior configuration needed to be made, and this new one has its flaws as well, whether concerning the standings-driven points-structure, the need for automatic entrants, late-season scheduling, playoff seeding, or division alignments.

But the discussion revolves around Thanksgiving.

Coaches with teams still fighting for Super Bowl glory are questioned regularly by parents as to whether they’ll play to win on the holiday, or sit their key players to save them for what’s largely considered a bigger game. The other numerous teams preparing for their final games, though, have no reason not to dress their starters, leading to a potential varsity versus junior varsity showdown in a handful of contests.

In most towns, the Thanksgiving Day game is all that’s left, but there’s nothing on the line to fight for other than pride. The common criticism is that it renders the game meaningless, or turns it into a glorified scrimmage.

And, not to be lost in the debate, many schools in the new system played their rival already this year with the thought that beating the top teams in their leagues early in the season would help cement playoff berths, since the top two squads in each division were guaranteed a spot.

It’s a scheduling gaffe that didn’t need to be made and likely won’t be as common in the future, according to Swampscott coach Steve Dembowski, who says he hasn’t heard a complaint from anyone about the existing arrangement, even from teams like his that failed to advance to the playoffs. The 15-year coach was heavily involved in the development of the new format, and also sits on the executive board of the Massachusetts Coaches Association, representing the Northeastern Conference.

“A lot of athletic directors and football coaches [in the East] didn’t believe this plan had a chance to pass a vote, so they didn’t read the proposal,” he said sternly. “These leagues could have chosen a formula for which you’d choose your playoff teams. You didn’t have to play your full league schedule and play your Thanksgiving opponent twice, possibly three times. A lot of athletic directors don’t understand that if you’re playing in a league of five, you’re still gonna have three non-conference games that should get you into the tournament. You don’t have to be the first or second team in your league; you just really needed to have a winning record.”

Plymouth South and Plymouth North are among the squads preparing to clash for a third time on Thanksgiving.

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“We’re not going to play any of our starters,” revealed South coach and athletic director Scott Fry, whose team trails its rivalry with North, 14-5. “In talking to our kids, the chance to play in Gillette is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I owe it to those kids to put them in the best position for that game.”

Fry noted his decision will take away from the annual importance of the Thanksgiving contest, but his younger students are excited to have the experience to play in a game they otherwise would not have, and the upperclassmen are content with having already played and beaten North twice to secure a league title and set up a playoff matchup with Stoughton. Those two South-North games, he said, had more magnitude than any Thanksgiving confrontation they’ve ever had. The next challenge for 9-1 South is a Division 3 Super Bowl against Tewksbury next month.

“We’re not going to have one practice,” added Fry. “We’re getting ready for Tewksbury, not North.”

Fortunately, that’s not the consensus.

Brian Aylward is in his 17th year as head coach of 11-0 Tewksbury. Before he took over the bench, his father, Bob, led the school’s program for two decades. Having been to every Thanksgiving game in his lifetime as a fan, player, or coach, he sees things differently heading into Tewksbury’s first matchup of the season with long-time foe Wilmington.

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“It’s an 80-year tradition [led by Tewksbury, 45-29-7], and I think for anybody who plays football, it’s a rite of passage to play in the Thanksgiving game,” Aylward stated, acknowledging that no one associated with his school or student body is looking beyond the holiday to the Super Bowl. “It’s our next game, and that’s the way we’re treating it. Then we’ll get ready for the next game.”

Aylward confessed it’d be nice to have the depth to sit his starters, but quickly said he’d never do so since the game provided an opportunity to get ready for the Super Bowl.

“To hold off for two full weeks from playing at game-speed is crazy, in my opinion.”

Central Catholic coach Chuck Adamopolous, a teacher and a member of the 9-1 Raiders’ staff for 30 years, also plans to play his starters against 40-year rival Andover, despite a Super Bowl appearance waiting with Xaverian. Division 1 schools had one fewer playoff round than the other divisions, so not doing so would result in a three-week gap between games. He said his biggest obstacle is preventing everyone from glancing ahead.

“We had parent-teacher night and I had parents coming up – I don’t have their kids in class – and all they wanted to talk about is December,” laughed Adamopolous. “In the past, people would stop by and say, ‘Are we ready for Thanksgiving?’ I had to keep saying, ‘We’ve got a game on Thanksgiving.’ That’s our focus. It’s Andover’s last game and they’re on a three-game winning streak. It would make their season to beat us on that day.”

Bishop Fenwick coach and athletic director Dave Woods will lead his 11-0 team against 9-2 Northbridge in the Division 5 Super Bowl. Though his school doesn’t have a traditional Thanksgiving rival, he hasn’t lost sight of what it means to have a game on that day.

“I can’t even imagine – a couple of our kids – if I tried to take them out of the game or tell them they couldn’t play, they’d rip my head off,” Woods chuckled. “For our seniors, it’s their last chance to play at Donaldson Stadium. We’re gonna play to win.

“People have made the comment that this system turns Thanksgiving into an exhibition game, and I just don’t buy that,” the 16-year coach continued. “Any person who’s ever played high school football will tell you Thanksgiving is a special, special day, whether you have a rival or not. When I played, we didn’t have a win, we had no chance of going to the playoffs, and it was still the most special game of the year. Players, once the whistle blows and the game starts, they’re not thinking about the Super Bowl or anything else other than playing football that day.”

Dembowski took it a step further, saying his players in Swampscott were more interested in winning on Thanksgiving back in 2007 than emerging victorious in the Super Bowl.

“We had already clinched a playoff spot, Thanksgiving’s outcome didn’t mean anything to us [in the standings] and we were playing on Tuesday no matter what,” he said, “but my kids wanted to win the game. When asked what their favorite game was, it was Thanksgiving.”

The most common complaint about the old playoff method from Dembowski and his peers, outside of having nearly two dozen state champs, was the jam-packed nature of the season’s most important games. Just as the coach mentioned, teams would play on Thanksgiving, in many cases already with an indication of their postseason futures. That was followed five days later by a playoff outing and, if they won, a Super Bowl bout on Saturday.

To have to play three games of that magnitude in a span of 10 days was simply too much, and it was unlike anything they ever experienced during the regular season. Now, for the remaining teams, there are nine days to recover. More time to enjoy the togetherness and unity of readying themselves for a big game, and unquestionably better as it pertains to players’ physical well-being.

The popular opinion is that the adjustments have sent the system in the right direction.

Woods considers the new plan to be “outstanding – 100 times better than it was before – and I would say that even if we weren’t in the finals,” and said he’s heard very few criticisms.

“I think it’s going to be a good system over the course of years,” added Aylward, who teaches American government and certainly recognizes the value of change. “They needed to do something to get more participation in the playoff system, and I think they did a good job. If you look at the excitement level around the state, the way the papers have covered it, the Internet, I think it’s been great and exciting for us to be part of.”

Still, not everyone is sold.

“I’m still not sure how I feel about it,” admitted Adamopolous, whose school was one of the 131 dissenters in the 30-vote defeat. He’s been around long enough to remember when there were no Super Bowls, and only a ratings system determined the state winner. There wasn’t even one championship game, let alone the 19 that have taken place in each of the last dozen seasons.

The Central coach recently went to scout Andover and Chelmsford in preparation of his team’s Thanksgiving game and observed the crowd only consisted of about 150 people, whereas it would have had playoff or league implications in the past. Adamopolous said his school’s first playoff game also stood out, since the opposing team only brought about 20 people, as compared to the late-season interest there would have been previously, like when all of the league games came in the second-half of the year and each one had a postseason atmosphere.

“In a perfect world, the playoffs would take place after everyone’s regular season is done,” said the coach. “If you lose in the playoffs, your season is over and you’re not playing afterward. That would be my one negative but, if you asked my kids right now, they’d say they love the new system.”

As with anything new, more change is inevitable.

But the biggest mistake any outsider, coach, or player could make is diminishing the value of the Thanksgiving game. Rivalries may not have those playoff spots or league titles on the line like they once did, but the singular day still matters to those players on the field as much as it ever has. And, for the communities, filled with week-long celebrations and pep rallies, that view should be the same.

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There’s a buzz in the air on Thanksgiving, fueled by the return of thousands of locals who have since moved elsewhere or may only journey out for one game a year to sit among the masses and catch up with old friends and classmates. It’s a big town reunion, one that transports a person back in time to place where the boys in the uniforms were different, but the names on the front of the jerseys were not. A time when defeating that same opponent in enemy colors meant just as much. For one day, an entire community is a close family.

We can all agree it would be lunacy to not play on Thanksgiving, and that feeling couldn’t be replicated by moving the game up on the schedule to, say, homecoming, when the turnout wouldn’t be nearly as substantial. Unfortunately, reigniting the importance of the holiday in the standings by pushing off the playoffs is no answer either on account of the start of winter sports.

In the end, only a dozen teams could possibly view the Thanksgiving game as something less than it once was because they have another challenge in front of them. Rest assured, most won’t.

There can be both Super Bowl glory and the romance and pageantry of tradition. There is, in fact. You’ll be reminded of that on Thursday. Just don’t forget it, as I did when wishing Coach Adamopolous well next month.

“See! You just did the same thing everyone else is doing,” he bellowed with a laugh. “You didn’t say, ‘Good luck on Thanksgiving!’”

Good luck, coach.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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About this blog

Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.

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