Battle for Island Cup Is Set for Saturday

By JOSHUA SABATINI

Forget the season behind them; forget the playoffs ahead. This week, for the football squad and fans alike, Saturday's battle for the Island Cup - like many a legendary sports rivalry - is the only thing that matters.

Martha's Vineyard enters Saturday's game against Nantucket at 9-1, having already clinched the Mayflower League Large title. The Vineyarders have outscored opponents 180-40 in their last five games.

At 5-4, the visiting Whalers have had a disappointing season. But ending the trophy's two-year stay on the Vineyard would turn it into a successful one.

Vineyard coach Donald Herman said Nantucket is a strong team defensively, but that its offense has struggled in the last five games, scoring only 16 points total.

But statistics mean nothing to the coach, he said, because the game can always go either way. Experienced Island Cup fans know it's wise to expect the unexpected.

"On paper we are a better team, but that's not where we play the game," said Coach Herman. "This game is its own creature. Anything can happen, and it will.

"When you have two teams coming in at emotional peaks, anything can happen," he added.

His Vineyarders are excited about this weekend, and the coach has only stoked their frenzy. Each day this week, Coach Herman removed the Island Cup from the trophy case and placed it where the practice time is posted. Consciously or subconsciously, each player couldn't help but see it.

Then he brought the trophy out onto the field for practice.

This year, the Whalers' season ends with the Island Cup; they are not going to the playoffs. "They have everything to gain and nothing to lose," Coach Herman said.

The players know they go into battle with thousands praying for a victory. The Martha's Vineyard Touchdown Club spent the end of the week rallying the team, raising its warrior spirit. Yesterday afternoon, club members and other volunteers led students in decorating the walls of the high school with school colors purple and white, banners and posters exhorting the team to Beat Nantucket.

The club planned to build a bonfire last night to celebrate the players' final contest on the athletic field. The club also will fete the players and coaches with a steak and potato dinner, with ice cream sundaes for dessert.

The intense battle between the Island teams does not dampen the Vineyard's relationship with her sister island, though. The Touchdown Club provides the Nantucket fans with a hospitality center in the high school cafeteria.

It is similarity that has sown the seeds of the rivalry. "We are two schools on an island," Coach Herman said. "Each school is proud of its athletic program. There is the uniqueness of being on islands. It's the social event of the year."

What is on the line for the Vineyard squad is threefold - keeping the trophy at home, beating Nantucket three years in a row (Vineyard has never won three consecutive Island Cups) and bringing Coach Herman's 6-7 record in Nantucket battles to an even .500.

Remembering his past teams, Coach Herman compared the 2001 squad to the 1997 and 1999 teams that beat Nantucket.

"We are a very athletic team. Overall, our athletic talent is high," he said. "The biggest difference is in size. This year's team is smaller. The ‘97 and ‘99 teams were big and physical.

"They loved contact. They thrived off of being more physical. This year's team is not quite there," the coach added. "We are more of a finesse team, especially our offense. But our pursuit of the ball is better than those other two past teams."

Part of the lack in size can be attributed to the grade level of the players. For the most part, Coach Herman plays only three seniors. So next year. . .

Well, that's getting ahead of things.

Six players, all seniors, made the Mayflower League Large all-star team: Keith Crossland, Tim Higgins, Ross McDowell, Shawn Emin, Justin Chapman and Ryan Smith.

Crossland will start as quarterback, but Eric McCarthy will see game time as well. Crossland has had a strong offensive season with his quarterback options, pitchouts and rollout passes.

Tim Higgins and J.D. Wild have performed magically on the field, picking up yardage in the open field while fighting off tackles and weaving through the frenzied throngs.

Special teams and the defense have come on strong of late, causing fumbles and earning quarterback sacks. McDowell leads with his ferocity on the field, and is backed up by the likes of James Rebello, James Cimeno and Chris Brown.

Coach Herman refused to comment on his strategies for the Island Cup, and rightly so. The no-huddle offense is likely to make an appearance, and in all probability the fans may see plays never before revealed.

Those attending the big game are asked to bring canned food for the Island Food Pantry. The high school will also announce its homecoming king and queen at halftime.

One thing is for certain - the first surprise of the game will come shortly before the 1 p.m. kickoff.

"People should get there early," said Coach Herman. "There is something special planned at the coin toss."

What is it? The coach won't say.

"It's some surprise. That is all I am saying."