A football season hangs in the balance as 34th Island Cup beckons

The Vineyarders gathered around the Island Cup after beating Nantucket 10-7, last year, their eighth straight win in the historic rivalry. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

John Bacheller is still amazed. “I had no idea the Island Cup would get this big,” the former Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School football coach said last Sunday night.

Thirty-four years after he went to Falmouth in 1978 to purchase a modest $127 trophy, dubbed The Island Cup, the annual end-of-season game has developed epic proportions. “I just did it to give the game a little more excitement for the kids,” Mr. Bacheller said.

But over the years, national networks, Sports Illustrated, the New Yorker, ESPN, even shock-jock Don Imus have climbed on The Island Cup bus. Last year, Boston-based author James Sullivan became its Bosworth, publishing a book on the 59-year high school football rivalry between Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. The game is played on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, alternating between this island and our neighbor to the southeast.

The 34th Island Cup will be played on November 17 at 1 pm at Dan McCarthy Memorial Field next to Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School in Oak Bluffs. Nantucket leads the Cup series 17-16 and the 59-year series by a 35-26-3 edge. The junior varsity game kicks off at 10 am at Dan McCarthy Field. The junior high game also gets underway at 10 am on the jayvee soccer field.

“Imus predicted the game winner and score in his (nationally syndicated) morning show. He always picked the Vineyard and one year he even predicted the score correctly,” Mr. Bacheller recalled in a conversation at a packed Touchdown Club dinner/fundraiser at the Portuguese-American Club in Oak Bluffs.

Current Island coach Don Herman noted that, tradition aside, the 2012 Island Cup is important for both high school football programs. While both schools have had glittery success over past decades, appearing in multiple and successive divisional state championship Super Bowls, this year, the game is solely for pride.

“This will be an intense, hard-fought game,” Coach Herman said on Monday. “No one wants to lose it. This is the season for both teams. No one is going to the playoffs. They are 4-6; we are 6-4. Winning the Cup would make the season for both teams.”

The mustachioed 25-year head coach has also unleashed a powerful motivational incentive. “I told the kids earlier this season that if we go 7-4, I’ll shave my mustache,” he said with a chuckle. “This is only the third time I’ve done this and it worked in 1989 and in 2003: they won the Super Bowl.”

Handicappers agree, based on the up and down seasons of both squads. The Vineyarders recovered from an opening game drubbing to win four in a row. One of their six wins, a two-point squeaker, came against Bristol-Plymouth, a team Nantucket beat 35-20.

There are some personal goals for players, including several of the 10 seniors. “I have to check the records but Alec (QB Tattersall) is closing in on the single-season passing record here,” Mr. Herman said. “Running back Brandon Watkins needs 145 yards for a thousand yards rushing. He’s over 1,000 in all-purpose yards already, Then again, we’re also at the record for most points allowed in a season.”

Mr. Herman credited his squad for their performance this year. “Most schools have 20 or more seniors,” he said. “We had 10 seniors and Nick Costello was injured in the first game and has been out for the season. This is a young team. We’ve played two freshman and four sophomores this year. One freshman, Ben Clarke, started at middle linebacker and freshman safety Jacob Cardoza has played both on offense and defense. I haven’t started a freshman since Ben Gunn started in 1999.”

The game is also on the radar of the U. S. Marine Corps. “They have a program called Great American Rivalries, which is national in scope and the Cup game has been one of their featured rivalries for the past three years,” Mr. Herman said. “The Marines will be on hand to deliver $1,000 scholarships to a player from each school with the highest grade point average, an award to the game MVP and caps to the winning team.”

In the state of Ohio, before its annual game with Michigan, Ohio State fans have nicknamed the week before its annual season-ending game with Michigan as “Michigan Week,” replete with events and festivities.

Perhaps this is “Cup Week” on the Island. Beginning last Sunday with the Touchdown Club dinner, pre-game events include an annual flag football game between junior and senior high school women at 5:30, a bonfire pep rally on Thursday at 6:30, weather permitting, and a pre-game steak dinner for the team on Friday evening, to which all Island law enforcement officers who have played for the Island are invited. All of the events are staged at the high school campus.

“This rivalry is definitely undergoing a revival,” Mr. Herman said, noting that since the 2009 cup game was cancelled because of a low number of Nantucket players, “the last two games have been decided by eleven points in total.”

“They are a young team. We are a young team. We’ll see,” he said.