Are you ready for some Island Cup?

Vineyarders Lochlund Chimes (left) Mike Cutrer, and Liam Smith (right) lift the Island Cup and the Great American Rivalry Series winner's plaque following the dramatic 27-26 win over Nantucket last year at Dan McCarthy Field. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket will play Saturday at Vito Capizzo Stadium on the campus of Nantucket High School in the 35th Island Cup game. The meeting is the 66th overall and marks the 60th anniversary of the first game played between the island rivals.

In the six decades that have passed, the game has grown from humble roots to become one of the nation’s great high school rivalries. Team records, statistics, strength of schedule, and all other intangibles are irrelevant once the two sides hit the gridiron.

“This game is a beast all its own,” Vineyard coach Donald Herman said during the buildup to this year’s Cup clash. When the beast was born, few people likely realized what it would grow to become.

On November 20, 1953, head coach Jack Kelley, later to gain fame as a championship winning hockey coach with Boston University and the New England Whalers (later Hartford Whalers and Carolina Hurricanes) and assistant coach Dan McCarthy flew to Nantucket with a green group of Vineyarders comprised of players from high schools in Tisbury, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown. The experienced Whalers rallied from a 20-13 halftime deficit to win 33-20. The teams tied 0-0 at Veterans Park in Vineyard Haven, the following season.

Fast forward six years to the creation of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School in 1960, where the series resumed, uninterrupted for 49 years. The teams played each other twice per season from 1961-1971. With Dan McCarthy as head coach, the Vineyarders shutout Nantucket for five consecutive games during a 6-0-2 stretch from 1962-1965. During that time, the Vineyarders went undefeated in 1963 and Nantucket hired legendary coach Vito Capizzo, who remained in charge until 2009, winning three Super Bowls and 293 games.

Coach Capizzo’s teams quickly came to dominate the series for more than 20 years.

In 1977, John Bacheller took over as head coach from Gerry Gerolamo and wanted to bring some added luster to the inter-island rivalry by introducing a trophy, based on the annual Salem-Beverly Thanksgiving game. He traveled to Falmouth to purchase the $127 piece of hardware and the Island Cup debuted in 1978; a 36-0 Nantucket romp. Ironically, in 1977, Bacheller’s team won 14-12. The Whalers won the first seven Cup games. Coach Bob Tankard’s Vineyard team finally broke through for a 12-2 win in 1985. Current Oak Bluffs police chief Erik Blake blocked a punt and returned the ball 60 yards for the winning touchdown. In 1988, with the Whalers holding a 9-1 edge in the Cup series, Donald Herman came to the Vineyard from Savannah, Georgia, to begin his storied career as Vineyard head coach. During his tenure, the Vineyarders have won 206 games and five Super Bowl titles.

Memorable Island Cup moments abound from the past 25 years. In 1992, the Vineyarders, winless in Nantucket since 1972, trailed 12-0 with 4:46 to play. Quarterback Jason Dyer connected on touchdown passes to Albie Robinson and Keith Devine as M.V. rallied for a 14-12 win. In 2004, E.J. Sylvia delivered what is now known as “the kick” in the dying seconds to give the Vineyarders a 21-20 win. Last year, after tight battles in 2010 and 2011, the Purple celebrated the 20th anniversary of the 1992 game with a dose of deja vu, breaking Whaler hearts again as Alec Tattersall threw TD passes to Brandon Watkins and Joe Turney in the final 4:41 to pull out a 27-26 win.

Saturday, in Nantucket, the Whalers will be waiting, with a raucous, passionate home crowd behind them, trying to capture the Cup for the first time since 2002. “I love playing in front of that atmosphere [at Vito Capizzo Stadium],” coach Herman said. “I thrive on it, I really enjoy it, I’m used to it. It’s the intensity of football that I’ve grown up with all my life.”

The Vineyarders are on a nine-game winning streak, with 16 wins and 8 losses against the Whalers in Donald Herman’s tenure. The Island Cup is now tied at 17-17 and the Vineyarders have a chance to break on top for the first time.

The Whalers still lead the overall series 35-27-3.

M.V. will face a talented, athletic Nantucket team packing considerable size. “They are large,” coach Herman said, emphasizing the last word. “Two or three kids are approaching 300 pounds, if not over. They have some very good athletes. They’re an usually big, talented team this year. They show you a lot of different looks on offense, a lot of motion.”

The Vineyarders, coach Herman believes, may have an advantage on the defensive line. “Our defensive line is going to have to have a good day,” he said. “I think we’re quicker up front than they are and pound for pound stronger than they are.”

Also on the plus side, the Vineyarders, plagued by injuries throughout the season, are getting healthier. Deshawn James and Tyler Paulson returned, with good results, last week against a tough Archbishop Williams team. Joe Turney, Tony Canha, and Jack Slayton are also back in the lineup. Still, the Vineyarders will miss seniors Oscar Hansen, Andrew Carroll, and James Cleary, along with junior quarterback Mike Mussell. Tony Breth will once again get the start at QB.

One thing that can’t hurt the Vineyarders is being battle-tested from a bruising schedule. Bedford, the Vineyard’s opponent on opening week, finished 9-2 in Division 4 (one higher than M.V.) and reached the Eastern Mass. title game. Archbishop Williams, Norwell, Somerset Berkley, Brighton too, are all solid teams.

The Vineyarders are 4–6 overall this year, and Nantucket is 5–5.

“You can’t really compare our schedules,” coach Herman said. “Their [Nantucket’s] schedule isn’t nearly as tough as ours.” The coach was quick to point out, however, that it doesn’t matter. Why? Because the Island Cup is a beast all its own.