LEOMINSTER, Mass. -- Something very important appears to be missing regarding the new MIAA state football playoff system.
Once upon a time Thanksgiving Day rivalries were considered the pinnacle to any team's season. It didn't seem to matter what you did during the previous nine or 10 weeks just as long as you beat your traditional rival on November's final week. There was a time across the state when you had match ups on Thanksgiving so intense that friends from each school refused to talk to one another during the week leading up to the game. People would come back from points unknown just to make the game part of their Thanksgiving holiday.
Thanksgiving high school football is as much a tradition in Massachusetts as the Boston Pops playing their annual Fourth of July concert on the Esplanade. Yet the new playoff format, adopted last year, has taken some of the pageantry away from these events due to the fact that the playoffs are held before turkey day, with the six state Super Bowls games being already set.
Fitchburg versus Leominster is one of the most-storied rivalries in all of high school football. On Saturday, after the game was postponed Thursday due to heavy snow that blanketed the area the night before, the two teams met for the 133rd time. The popularity of the contest has risen through the years, gaining national attention. Two books on the rivalry have also been written.
Playing at Doyle Field, this year's version of "The Game" seemed to lack the energetic atmosphere you would normally associate with this event. Stands were half-full, fans stayed relatively quiet and both teams sort of went through the motions. For the record, the Blue Devils dominated on the scoreboard, winning handily 23-8 and now lead the all-time series 64-59-10.
What also may have lessened the excitement of this game was the fact that both teams had already squared off against one another two weeks ago in the Central Mass. Division 2 title game -- won by Fitchburg, 7-0.
The Red Raiders were knocked out of Super Bowl contention a week ago by Longmeadow in the state semifinal round. So the only thing that mattered in the re-match between these bordering cities was pride.
After losing its first four games of the season, Fitchburg (6-6) came on strong. The Red Raiders won their next six games before bowing out to the Lancers which is a credit to head coach Dan Walker and his staff in making sure this team stayed the course when things looked their darkest.
On the other side was Leominster, a club that began the year 0-2 before rattling off seven straight victories. The Blue Devils (8-3) were huge favorites heading in their first encounter against Fitchburg, but they were also facing a squad who was red-hot at the time and thus went down in defeat.
"We were coming off a tough loss to Fitchburg but in this rivalry you shouldn't need any extra motivation to get up for it," said Blue Devils head coach Dave Palazzi, who was part of this rivalry in the early 1980s as Leominster's starting quarterback and would later go on to star at UMass. "It's Leominster vs. Fitchburg. I know there are a lot of people who wish that Thanksgiving meant something between the two teams but it is what it is. It's still Leominster and Fitchburg and maybe (the playoff committee) will change things around at some point so Thanksgiving games can have playoff implications."
Walker coincided with Palazzi's assessment, realizing the hype of this spectacle has been dampened some with the new format.
"The new playoff system has taken a lot away from this game," he said. "Having played Leominster already and then lose to (Longmeadow) is the state semis was very tough to comeback from."
Saturday's game started out as a punt fest as neither offensive unit could move the ball with regular consistency.
Things didn't change much to open the second quarter. The Blue Devils mounted a drive early in the frame but saw it end after Fitchburg defensive back Darius Flowers stepped in front of a Noah Gray pass for the interception. But the Red Raiders offense, which appeared to be frozen to the turf, continued to go backwards failing to mount any kind of charge. With under four minutes to go before halftime, Leominster caught a break. With Fitchburg lined up to punt deep in its own territory, a bad snap over the head of punter Facundo Isas rolled into the end zone. Instead of picking the ball up and trying to run with it, Isas did the wise thing by slapping it out of the back of the end zone resulting in a safety for Leominster.
"Fitchburg has a great defense and they shut us out for almost six quarters going back to the last game," Palazzi said. "Our guys made the plays today which was the difference. We just needed to keep plugging and I thought our seniors played their hearts out. I'm happy for them and I think Fitchburg should be proud of themselves to be able to do what they did was a phenomenal job. We're just happy to send our seniors off with a victory."
The Blue Devils would get the ball back following the safety and Eddie Rivera returned Isas' punt 39 yards to the Fitchburg 24. Reaching into its bag of tricks, Gray threw a lateral out to wide receiver Shane Crayton who, in turn, fired a pass to D'Andre Addo in the end zone, extending the Blue Devils lead to 9-0 with 2:45 showing before halftime.
"We always have stuff up our sleeves," said Crayton, a senior. "Our receivers know how to get open and our line did a phenomenal job today. We came into this game not wanting to feel that pain again from two weeks ago. I never want to feel that pain again and I know all of my teammates didn't want to feel that pain again either."
The Red Raiders offense finished with negative 22 yards in the first half. Their top running back Alex Marrero, a sophomore, was held in check throughout, netting just 47 yards.
"We didn't run the ball very effectively," Walker said. "We just didn't really have it today. Leominster played well and deserved it. They outplayed us up front so give credit to them."
Beginning the third quarter, Fitchburg started showing some life after moving the ball to the Blue Devil 40 before punting it away. On Leominster's ensuing possession, Gray was picked off again by Nik Myles but Fitchburg did nothing with the possession as the offense remained dormant. Gray, a sophomore, threw for just 31 yards, completing 4 of 13 attempts. He proved to be more-effective running the ball, gaining 93 yards on six attempts.
With the ball back in their hands, the Blue Devils enjoyed their best drive of the morning, marching 86 yards before Crayton, now lined up behind center, threw a 16-yard touchdown strike to Rivera, increasing the lead to 16-0 early in the fourth quarter. Things remained that way until, with a 1:39 remaining, Rivera (9 carries for 62 yards) broke through the defensive line for a 28 yard scoring run.
"We played our hearts out, Rivera said. "We knew we couldn't lose this game. It was a terrible feeling not being able to play on Turkey Day but we knew we had to come out here today and get this win. Fitchburg took something away from us two weeks ago so we needed to come out with some redemption to take it back."
A shutout was the last thing the Red Raiders wanted to be apart of.
Standing at his own 36, Flowers (5 of 13 passes completed for 120 yards) lofted a deep pass to receiver Manny Payton, who beat the secondary for a 64-yard scoring completion with 51 ticks remaining on the clock. Flowers finished off the scoring with a conversion run. Fitchburg finished the day with only 51 yards of offense while the Blue Devils struck for 257.