Island Cup preview

Vineyarders try to reclaim the Cup on Saturday in Nantucket.

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The Vineyard lost to the Whalers 42-0 in the 2016 Island Cup, breaking a 12-year winning streak. — Emily Drazen

Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket will meet in the 39th Island Cup game this Saturday at Vito Capizzo Stadium in Nantucket (1 pm kickoff). The game is also the 70th meeting all-time between the island rivals since Nov. 20, 1953, when Head Coach Jack Kelley, later of Boston University and New England Whalers (later Hartford Whalers, now Carolina Hurricanes) hockey fame, and Assistant Coach Dan McCarthy took a team of players from Tisbury, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown high schools over to Nantucket for the inaugural clash on the gridiron.

The Whalers won 33-20 on that day, and the teams tied 0-0 the following November at Veterans Park in Vineyard Haven. With the advent of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School in 1959, the series resumed in 1960, and has turned into one of the premier high school rivalries in the nation.

The teams did not play in 2009, with Nantucket suffering from low numbers one year after legendary Nantucket Coach Vito Capizzo retired following a storied 45-year career, or in 2017, when injuries and suspensions decimated the Vineyard roster and the season was canceled with two weeks remaining.

The Whalers lead the overall series 36-30-3, and ended a 12-game losing streak to the Vineyarders with a 42-0 victory at Dan McCarthy Field in the last meeting, two years ago. Since the teams began playing for the Island Cup trophy in 1978, the Vineyarders hold a 20-18 edge. Former Vineyard Coach John Bacheller based the idea for the Cup on the annual Salem-Beverly Thanksgiving Day game, and purchased the original trophy (which was replaced in 2014) for $127.

So what to expect in the latest chapter of the Cup series? With Coach Donald Herman back on the sidelines for a 29th season after a two-year hiatus, the Vineyard season began with high hopes, and has played out with a heavy dose of growing pains for a program trying to restore its former glory.

In the season opener on Sept. 7 at Dan McCarthy Field, the Vineyarders overwhelmed a clearly outmatched Atlantis Charter School squad by a 55-0 count. Perhaps more encouraging and a better indicator of the team’s potential was a gritty effort in a 26-14 loss the following week to the formidable St. John Paul II Lions.

In the weeks that have followed, the Vineyarders have struggled to overcome physical matchups in the trenches and to apply the lessons learned in practice to the field on game day. An impressive second half in a 19-16 loss at Fairhaven on Oct. 26 signaled an upswing for the Vineyarders, who ended a seven-game losing streak by grounding an explosive, pass-heavy Seekonk offense in a 15-7 home win on Nov. 1. Unfortunately, any momentum evaporated in a disappointing loss at home to Bristol-Plymouth on Friday night. With a win on Saturday in Nantucket, the Vineyarders would reclaim the Cup and their season.

The victorious team charged out of the ferry to blaring sirens and a cheering crowd in Vineyard Haven in this 2015 file photo.

Under new varsity Coach Joseph Perry, the Whalers (6-4) began the season with a pair of home losses to state champs Mashpee and Cohasset before reeling off six straight victories. Nantucket blasted Joseph Case, 34-7, in the playoff opener before the Abington Green Wave capsized the Whalers’ playoff hopes, 36-14, on Nov. 3. Nantucket lost to Nauset, 14-12, in a playoff consolation game last Friday.

The Vineyarders and Whalers have one common opponent in West Bridgewater. MV lost, 34-26, while Nantucket tamed the Wildcats, 35-21.

But such statistics and team win-loss records mean little in the Vineyard-Nantucket rivalry. Coach Herman knows his Vineyarders will encounter a skilled, athletic group of Whalers fueled by a potent running game. “They feature two really good running backs, and that’s the main part of their game,” he said. “They’ve won a lot of games, and they’re athletic, and it’s going to be a super challenge, but I think it’s something if our kids will believe, and I say it in all capitals, IF THEY BELIEVE, then we can go over there and get it done.”

As they have throughout the season as a sign of respect for Coach Capizzo, who died on May 17, the Vineyarders will sport a round, black sticker with the white initials “VC” on the back of their helmets for the Island Cup game on Saturday.

YearMartha's VineyardNantucket
2017DNPDNP
2016042
201570
2014217
2013140
20122726
2011107
20103325
2009Did not playDid not play
20084322
2007486
20064722
20052712
20042120
2003207
20022025
2001340
2000316