Wednesday, November 24, 2010
The great rivalry of the West
By Neil Carroll
LONGMEADOW, Mass. -- Across the state, most football-powerhouses meet their match on Thanksgiving Day. They face off against a similarly talented team, the records get thrown out, and it’s a no-holds-barred battle for Turkey Day supremacy.
In the Central and Eastern parts of Massachusetts there are plenty of games to choose from: Xaverian and St. John’s Prep, Marshfield and Duxbury, Andover and Central Catholic or Fitchburg and Leominster -- just to name a few.
But for everyone west of Worcester, if you want to see a consistently close game between two of the most successful programs in the region, you head to the annual Longmeadow-East Longmeadow Thanksgiving Day matchup.
This heated rivalry wasn't forged in 1882 like Wellsley and Needham’s game, nor has it involved the trading off of some kind of historical relic, but time-after-time this contest comes down to pure competition between two of the best in the West.
If you’re trying to pick a favorite in this game, then good luck. This year’s contest is a headache to break down.
At first glance, the two teams’ records stand out. East Longmeadow (9-0,6-0 AA) has a chance to go undefeated for the first time in Coach Scott Raymond’s career, and Longmeadow (9-1, 6-0) has one loss to out of conference opponent St. John’s (Shrewsbury).
The Longmeadow Lancers come in with a stronger schedule as they lost to St. John’s (Shrewsbury) and beat Catholic Memorial earlier in the season, but according both coaches, strength of schedule won’t matter on the field on Thursday.
“I don’t see [our schedule] as a factor at all. I think they could have just as easily gone out to St. John’s and got their butt kicked as we did,” Longmeadow coach Alex Rotsko joked. “I don’t know if they’re better than Catholic Memorial or not -- I’m not sure we are better than CM.
“We beat Catholic Memorial that night and did some good things, but if you look at the common opponents [with East Longmeadow], the scores are very comparable actually.”
“I don’t think the kids even look at [the out of conference games],” Raymond said. “They’ve played against Longmeadow since their youth days and the can judge their competitive level with that.”
After last year’s conference realignment, East Longmeadow has now moved up into the AA conference with Longmeadow -- even though they are in Division II as far as the MIAA playoffs are concerned. Longmeadow has won or shared a whopping nine-straight league titles (although one year Longmeadow tied with Minnechaug Regional High School) but this year’s game -- like last year’s -- is for the league title.
The Spartans will host the Lancers for the last time on the current field at East Longmeadow High School (before it's replaced with turf in the offseason) and they are hoping to continue a win-streak that dates back to 2006. The last time East Longmeadow lost at home was against -- you guessed it -- the Lancers. And speaking of streaks, Longmeadow has not lost to a conference opponent since 2004, when the Lancers fell to Agawam at home.
“The excitement of playing Longmeadow has changed a little bit for us, because we’ve gotten to the point where we feel we can compete with them,” Raymond said about Longmeadow. “They’re such a great program and our kids get excited because they want to play the best -- and they’ve always demonstrated that they are the best.”
The two teams are very familiar with each other. Raymond used to coach at Longmeadow High before Rotsko became the head coach, and he and Rotsko remain friends despite their teams’ rivalry. But it doesn’t stop there.
In the offseason, Rotkso and Raymond team up to run the Wing-T Camp at either Longmeadow or East Longmeadow High every summer. This gives teams from around the region an opportunity to learn from some of the best Wing-T minds in the area. It also gives East Longmeadow and Longmeadow a chance to measure up against one another before they put the pads on.
That familiarity with each other’s offense makes the Thanksgiving Day game an annual chess match between coaches. Whether Rotsko will dust off his patented sweep-series “sucker”-trap (where the guard pulls outside to draw a linebacker), or Raymond will implement the sweep-series quarterback keeper to get an extra athlete in front of the normal outside-run, both coaches will pull out all the tricks they have.
While ball possession will surely be a factor in the game because of the 10-minute quarters now implemented in the Thanksgiving Day games, it is worth seeing what the coaches thought (outside of the clock) will be a factor in the game.
When asked about what the keys to the game will be Rotsko gave his textbook vanilla-answer.
“First, we’re trying not to give up big plays, and secondly execution,” Rotsko said. “The team that executes better will win the game.”
When asked about what stands out about Longmeadow’s team, Raymond paused and laughed.
“What doesn’t stand out?” Raymond responded.
KEYS TO VICTORY:
Unlike how the coaches responded, if you look at the offensive stats, both teams stack up well against another. Longmeadow’s top two rushers (T.J. Norris and Frankie Elder) have combined for 22 rushing touchdowns, while East Longmeadow’s lead backs (Ray Holloway and Bryce McAllister) racked up 26 touchdowns.
Look for Holloway to have one big return against a Longmeadow kickoff team that always seems to be a weakness (if there was one) for the Lancers. Holloway -- like Minnechaug’s Mike Mercadante earlier in the year -- will have a lot of success against the Lancers, but Longmeadow will try to completely shut down the rest of the Spartans offense.
Don’t be surprised if Rotsko decides to air it out with Jake Lazarus. Although the Thanksgiving Day game usually presents raw or wet weather, by this time in the year, Rotsko typically gains enough confidence in his signal-callers to expand the playbook.