You’ve heard the cliches. Throw out the records. We can lose every game all year, a win in this game will make our season. We’ve come to that time of the year again when rivals will clash on the gridiron. Those who attend one game a year will flock in droves to attend this one, not to be seen again until next year’s meeting. The faded embers of passion for the alma mater burn fiercely once again.
Week eight features territorial wars such as Cony-Gardiner, which is the longest standing rivalry in the state and one of the most continuous matches in the country. The Tigers and Rams first faced each other in 1892. “Battle of the Bridge” contests will take place when Winslow travels across the Kennebec to face Waterville and Lewiston treks across the Androscoggin River to take on Edward Little.
Portland High School has multiple rivalry games on their schedule. Their city clash with Cheverus has intensified in recent years and they have their traditional Thanksgiving tilt with Deering. Ironically, the holiday game at Fitzpatrick Stadium will be the only meeting between the Rams and Bulldogs this year. Portland traditionally has concluded and will again end this regular season with their “Battle of the Casco Bay Bridge” match-up as they host South Portland.
Other territorial grudge matches include the battle of Route 2 when Mt. Blue travels to Skowhegan and the Battle of the Ridge takes place with Sanford hosting Massabesic.
Many would argue, self included, that today’s gridiron rivalries lack the luster of yesteryear. There are several reasons for this. Many of these contests were traditions passed down from generation to generation. No longer are many communities made up of descendants of their elders. Certainly the transient nature of our society has lessened the passion one feels for their cities and towns.
Secondly, many of the combatants in these games compete with each other on various travel and elite teams in other sports. The players they face off with across that trench are in many cases friends of theirs. They keep up with each through social media and will often hang out together when not competing.
Changing state demographics have brought an end to many of the great traditional season ending contests, particularly in northern and eastern Maine. Old Town and Orono through the mid-90’s had some fiercely contested battles. Bangor and Brewer renewed their cross-river rivalry this year with a preseason exhibition game but have played sporadically since 1980. Going back even further to the 1970’s, Madison and Skowhegan had many epic battles in the Pine Tree Conference. Consolidation ended one of the most heated rivalries between two mill towns recently with the merging of Jay and Livermore Falls.
Those who are historians of the game recall some of the great rivalries, particularly through the 1980’s in the Pine Tree Conference. The league during that era was filled with outstanding leaders, men who have become coaching legends. At the time Tank Violette, then later Mike Siviski coached at Winslow. Pete Cooper was at Lawrence, John Wolfgram at Gardiner, and Ray Caldwell at Mount Blue, just to name a few. The schools were not only close in proximity but these rivalries were defined by a level of greatness any times these schools played.
While some of the old contests have faded, football’s expansion and changing classifications have added some new territorial grudge matches. Windham and Bonny Eagle high schools, separated by a short distance via route 35 have developed a strong rivalry in recent years.
Lisbon and Oak Hill played the Battle of Route 9 a week ago. Attending the game last week, I heard many fans exclaim this was the first game they had been to all year. This game has taken on extra significance as not only are both contenders yearly in Western Maine Class D but Oak Hill head coach Stacen Doucette served as an assistant for many years under Lisbon’s Dick Mynahan.
While some traditional, geographic rivalries will be renewed, there are those which take place for a period of time then vanish. Those are the contests which are based on a sustained period of excellence by both schools. Coaches, who are giants in their profession, roam the sidelines. When Bangor and Brewer moved to different classes following the 1980 season, a new rivalry, an unlikely one was formed. It was a grudge match separated by some 150 miles, yet just as fierce as playing the neighbor from across the river. For the better part of the early to mid 80’s it was Biddeford who was Bangor’s chief rival, until reclassification in 1987. As with those PTC rivalries the coaches helped define this rivalry as well. The teams reflected their head coaches, tough and fiercely competitive, as were Gabby Price and Mike Landry.
With reclassification the Bangor-Brewer rivalry was renewed, yet for many of the games’ stalwarts it just didn’t feel the same. Brewer has fluctuated between classes for much of the period since. Even the years they did play if you were to ask most of the Bangor players, many would say their true rival in the late 90’s was Waterville then through the mid to late 2000’s, Lawrence.
Winslow’s rivals have also changed since moving down from Class A in the early nineties. Gone would be traditional contests versus Waterville and Lawrence, albeit they did maintain a preseason exhibition with Waterville. Like Bangor their chief combatants would be based on excellence. Early on it was Orono. When the Riots program faded in the mid-90’s a new rival emerged on the seen, one whose program had been dormant for a time. The Belfast Lions and Black Raiders developed a strong rivalry which would last a decade before Waterville would be placed back into Winslow’s classification.
While the Old Town-Orono rivalry has faded to the past, a new tradition was formed. John Bapst and Orono in 2010 began playing their annual game at the University of Maine. Several dynamics came into play making this grudge match fiercely contested. There was, of course, the issue of public school versus private school. Many of the players competing against one another went to middle school together with a choice of where to go to high school. Last year was the final meeting between the two schools for the foreseeable future as John Bapst has been reclassified into Class C.
Any talk of rivalries would not be complete without mentioning the one which sparked the documentary, “The Rivals”, Cape Elizabeth and Mountain Valley. I’ll admit I poo-pooed this as a legitimate rivalry when they first became “rivals”. In Cape Elizabeth there was this upstart program, full of seemingly false bravado, ready to knock off the established program, the tough, blue collar boys from Mountain Valley. Then I watched “The Rivals”, brilliantly put together by Kirk Wolfinger. By the way, if you love high school football, I highly recommend watching this film. Even though the schools are separated by some two hours, despite the distance, for a period of time this had all the making of a great gridiron rivalry.
There were so many elements which made these games riveting, if only for a relatively brief period. There was Cape Elizabeth, trying to establish their legitimacy as a program against the tradition of Mountain Valley. There were the wide socio-economic differences between the two communities, an affluent white collar community, versus blue collar towns. On the sidelines were two fiery coaches in the Capers’ Aaron Fileo and the Falcons’ Jim Aylward, currently the head coach at Mount Blue High School. In an ironic twist, it was the privileged kids from Cape who wanted what the boys from the Rumford-Mexico area had. It goes to prove that all of these other issues we place value on are of little significance during those two to two and a half hours on the football field. With Mountain Valley struggling in recent years, this game has somewhat devolved into just another game on the schedule.
Perhaps the greatest gridiron rivalry this state has seen ended a year ago. As far as I’m concerned, the Biddeford-Thornton Academy “Battle of the Bridge” in its heyday was the best this state has seen. Why? Because this yearly football tussle had everything a great rivalry needs. This rivalry was defined by excellence for many, many years. The communities were only separated by a bridge but the two cities and schools couldn’t have been both different. You could just feel a genuine hatred for the people across the way regardless of which side you were on.
There was the tough, mill town of Biddeford on one side of the bridge, on the other side in Saco, there was a perceived affluence. There was public Biddeford High School on one side with semi-private Thornton Academy on the other side of the river. In recent years Thornton renovated their home, Hill Stadium, into arguably the finest high school athletic complex in the state. It’s complete with Fieldturf, a large grandstand, beautiful new track, and the whole nine yards.
When both teams were great, crowds in excess of ten thousand would pack the grandstands and surround the field, three to four deep. It was high school football at its finest.
So when some of these contests are renewed this coming weekend, it’s times to throw out the records once again. For another year the victors will have bragging rights. For those competing against their traditional foes, that’s really all that matters.