Martha’s Vineyard bests Nantucket, 21-7, to retain Island Cup

___ and Jimmy DiMattia, right, kiss the Island Cup. — Photo by Michael Cummo

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There are games and then there is The Game: Martha’s Vineyard versus Nantucket. In a penalty-filled match at sold-out Dan McCarthy Field in Oak Bluffs Saturday, Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) beat Nantucket, 21-7, to hold on to the Island Cup.

Vineyard senior quarterback Mike Mussell threw two touchdown passes to Jacob Cardoza en route to a school single-season passing record, and Ben Clark ran for a third score in a game that saw every play contested until the whistle blew, and often after it was blown.

Saturday’s win was the Island’s 11th victory in a row. Martha’s Vineyard now leads the series, 19-17.

Martha’s Vineyard went into the game with a 6-5 win-loss record on the season. Nantucket was 8-3. Stats and previous wins and losses counted for little in a game fueled by emotion.

The Vineyarders opened the scoring on the first play of the second quarter when Ben Clark plunged the final two yards of a drive aided by consecutive Nantucket personal foul penalties. Kicker James Sashin added the first of his three extra points of the day to give the Vineyard a 7-0 lead.

Nantucket missed two opportunities to get on the scoreboard in the first half. In the second quarter, a Whaler drive was stalled at the 20 by a strong Vineyard defense. Nantucket’s 37-yard field goal attempt into the wind fell short. A subsequent second quarter Whaler drive, aided by two Vineyarder personal foul penalties, ended when a 24-yard field goal attempt was blown left by a strong southwest wind.

Each team had five first half possessions, though the Vineyarders led in time of possession as a result of eight Nantucket penalties, including six personal foul flags, that led to a Vineyarder score and kept the Whaler offense off the field.

Honoring vets

The halftime program honored Island veterans, including a military honor guard, a service citation for Island veterans agent JoAnn Murphy, and applause for about two dozen Island veterans who gathered at midfield.

In the stands, longtime fans were relishing the Vineyard lead in a well-matched game, allaying pre-game fears that a bigger Nantucket team with more numbers would overwhelm the Martha’s Vineyard team.

Prior to the start of the game and a performance by a nine-member group of MVRHS Minnesingers of the national anthem, one longtime fan had intoned, “I think this could be the year Nantucket wins.”

Indeed, the Whalers seemed to regroup at halftime and opened the third quarter with a sustained five minute, 11 play, 71-yard drive behind brothers Fervon and Keenen Phillips, punishing 200-pound Whaler running backs. Keenen Phillips punched it in from the four-yard line. Point after was good for a 7-7 tie with 6:07 left in the third.

A Vineyarder drive on the ensuing kickoff stalled at their 44-yard line with a Whaler fumble recovery and an uneasy crowd wondered whether momentum was shifting to Nantucket.

With 2:57 remaining in the third period, there was a Nantucket injury timeout for Whaler Justin Halford. Later reports indicated he was fine after he received medical attention.

When play resumed, the Vineyarders took control, stopping the Whalers on downs and starting a 63-yard, four-minute drive, mixing pass and runs that had veteran football coach Gil Carroll of Chilmark sitting in the stands, grinning and shaking his head.

Mr. Carroll of the Carroll and Hancock Island tribes, spent 30 years coaching high school ball in the Carolinas and Florida.

“The old fox. Can’t beat the old fox,” he chuckled, referencing Vineyard coach Don Herman, following an 11-yard pass play to wide open Jacob Cardoza that put the Vineyard up, 14-7, with 5:56 left in the game.

“That’s right. That’s the first time he’s run that play all day,” longtime Vineyarder fan Richard (Stoney) Stone concurred. The Vineyarders struck again, just three minutes later, with a 36-yard pass from Mussell to Cardoza for a 21-7 lead with 5:56 remaining.

The air seeped out of the Nantucket balloon as the PA system blared Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” The Whalers mounted an uncertain drive on the following possession, aided by Vineyarder penalties, that stalled after Jacob Cardoza broke up a 17-yard fourth down pass in the Vineyarders’ end zone with 3:22 left.

The Vineyarders ran out the clock, piling up two more first downs behind the running of Austin Chandler, Jacob Cardoza, and Ben Clark, and the 36th Island Cup was history. The Vineyarders received a brand-new cup from former Nantucket coach Vito Capizzo and former Vineyarder coach John Bacheller. The men bought the inaugural cup for $127 in Falmouth 36 years ago.

Speed beats brawn

In retrospect, the game played out according to the keys Mr. Herman outlined in his pre-game comments: self-discipline, smash-mouth football, and a balanced offense.

Offensively, Mike Mussell was 5-10 (2-1) for 104 yards to set a new single season record of 1,390, eclipsing Alec Tattersall’s 2012 record of 1,333 passing yards. The running game contributed 141 yards, led by Austin Chandler (61 yards), Ben Clark (40 yards) and Jacob Cardoza (39 yards). Jacob added 63 receiving yards for 102 all-purpose yards.

Defensively, Austin Chandler (15), David Macias (13) and Luke DeBettencourt (13) led a shutdown defense which allowed only 20 points in the last five games. David Macias set a new single-season record with 131 tackles, breaking James Hagerty’s 2000 record of 123 stops.

There was still a little post-game simmer in Coach Herman’s voice Monday. “There’s a thin line between confident and cocky and Nantucket crossed that line on Saturday,” he told The Times. “I saw a very cocky Nantucket team that thought they would just show up and dominate us with size. They’ve had a lot of success this year doing what they were doing, but we thought we could smack them back. You know, size is overrated sometimes. Speed kills. You want to be quick.”

“We told the kids that we had to make them match our intensity in the first quarter. Now, we lost our composure too at different points in the game, which was disappointing, but fortunately had no negative impact on the outcome.

“This is a great group,” he said. “Twenty points in the last five games? We turned it around in the second half of the Bishop Stang game, and the coaches did a great job over the last six games. Next year? We graduate 13 of our 45 players, so we have to do some recruiting in the school. Get some moms to let their kids play. We have some real athletes who aren’t doing anything. We have a talented junior corps but we need more players or it could be a lean year.

“So we’ll take a couple of weeks to enjoy this and get right back at it.”