There aren't too many teams that have had a more difficult schedule than Marshfield over the last few years. The Rams jumped up to Division 1 and moved from the Atlantic Coast League to the Old Colony League in 2001. In addition to facing the likes of Bridgewater-Raynham and Taunton, the Ramsí nonleague schedule was even more challenging. Last year, Marshfield faced Brockton (twice), BC High, and Xaverian. Oh, and let's not forget the annual Thanksgiving tilt with neighboring Duxbury, which went on to win the Division 2A Super Bowl.
It would seem the Rams would be hard pressed to line up another demanding schedule, but the 2006 season brings about a different set of challenges, as Marshfield has returned to the Atlantic Coast League (and to Division 1A) for the first time since 2000. It's a process that began back in 2003.
"We had to petition both the [Old Colony League] and the [Atlantic Coast League]," said Marshfield coach Lou Silva. "They both had to vote on it. If either league had a problem, then we wouldn't have been able to make the move back. It was finally accepted two years ago, that we would join the ACL for this season."
It will be easy to see why Marshfield, ranked 13th in the Globe Top 20, made the move back to the ACL this Friday, when the Rams renew their rivalry with Whitman-Hanson. It will be the first meeting between the two teams since 2000.
"It was just a great rivalry," said Silva. "It was really a big part of why we decided to get back in the ACL. They're probably our biggest rivals."
The games between the two schools heated up in the early 1990s, when Whitman-Hanson was a perennial power and the Rams were continually knocking on the door. In addition to making three trips to the Super Bowl in the 1980s, the Panthers went to the championship game in 1991, 1993 and 1994 as well. Marshfield finally broke through in 1995, beating the Panthers on the road for the first time.
"We finished with the same record [that season]," said Whitman-Hanson coach Sean Clifford, who was an assistant to Bob Bancroft at the time. "They beat us during the season and had the tie-breaker. Then they really took off."
The Rams would go to the Super Bowl in 1996, 1998, and 1999.
"That was the turning point for us," said Silva of the win over Whitman-Hanson in 1995. "That really propelled us."
Clifford was a member of the powerhouse Panthers teams of the 1980s as a player, then joined Bancroft's staff in 1995. He would eventually become head coach when Bancroft stepped down after the Panthers made back-to-back Super Bowl trips in 2000 and 2001. Entering 2005, Clifford was 30-10, but the Panthers dipped to 3-7 last season.
"We had a very young team last year," said Clifford. "We just didn't have that level of consistency, but we've matured a little bit this year."
A tough 22-20 win at Dennis-Yarmouth has Whitman-Hanson at 2-1, with a 21-20 loss to Plymouth South the only blemish. Clifford expects that his squad will be competitive throughout the year, and is glad to have Marshfield back on the schedule.
"I really like the idea of having Marshfield back," said Clifford. "It's part of the tradition. They have had outstanding success. They're a big, strong team."
Part of the appeal also has to do with geography. When Clifford was playing, the Panthers would traditionally face off against neighboring towns like Rockland, Hanover, and Hingham, not to mention the annual Thanksgiving battle with Abington.
"Scituate was the long trip in those days," said Clifford. "And maybe Plymouth-Carver. Now we're heading down to D-Y. That's a long trip back on a Friday night. Of course, the trip home always goes faster when you win," Clifford added with a laugh.
Marshfield also enters the game with a 2-1 record. The lone loss was the much ballyhooed matchup against Beverly Hills, a 31-20 loss.
"That was just unbelievable," said Silva. "The anticipation, the buildup. It was a lot of fun. I'm gonna try like crazy to get out there and play in the next couple of years. It would be a fun place to go to, and to experience a different brand of football. I think it's something we should definitely explore, to see other styles from different states."
Silva believes the atmosphere could be just as electric this Friday. Whitman-Hanson won the last meeting six years ago, when Steve Cappellini booted a field goal in the fourth quarter to give the Panthers a 9-7 win. Whitman-Hanson would go on to the Super Bowl that season.
"That was just a great game," said Silva of the last time the teams met. "I couldn't believe the crowd that night. It was packed. There wasn't a lot of scoring, but the fans saw a great game. We just came out on the short end."
Clifford knows his squad is the underdog this time around.
"This is going to be a big test for us," said Clifford. "We know they're not going to beat themselves. It's going to be a great experience for the kids on both teams, to be able to play in front of a big crowd."