It was a cold day for Nantucket in more ways then one Saturday, as the surging Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School football team easily defeated the once mighty Whalers by a score of 43-22 in a game not nearly as close as the final score indicated to take the Island Cup for the sixth year in a row.
Vineyarders coach Donald Herman emptied his bench at the start of the second half and the Whalers got two touchdown passes late from quarterback Chris Welch to make the score respectable, but the outcome of the game was never in doubt.
The game, played in frigid and windy conditions that felt more like late January than mid November, was a tale of two teams heading in opposite directions. The Vineyarders climbed to 10-1 on the season with the win, and next play in the Eastern Massachusetts Division 3A playoffs opener against South Boston on Tuesday; Taunton High School has been named a tentative site for the game.
Meanwhile the Whalers dropped to 0-10 on the season, the team’s first winless season since 1964, the first year that Vito Capizzo took over as coach.
Nobody gave Nantucket much of a chance heading into Saturday’s game, but the real surprise is perhaps how quickly the fortunes of the Whalers have turned over the past five years. The Whalers once dominated the Vineyard in the Island Cup game — they won five out of six from 1993 to 1998 and four in a row during that span.
But those heady days must seem like another lifetime for coach Capizzo as the Whalers dressed only 19 players for the game. There was even talk during the game as to whether the Island Cup tradition should even continue.
“We’ll have to see,” coach Capizzo said tersely following the game.
The Whalers could take some solace that the final score was not as lopsided as some predicted. After the Vineyarders scored 47 and 48 points in the previous two Island Cup games — both games setting new records for points scored in a game and margin of victory — the Whalers held their inter-Island rival to only 43 points on Saturday.
There was a sprinkling of optimism at the start of the game as newly elected state representative Tim Madden, who is from Nantucket, presided over the ceremonial coin flip. The home crowd was bundled up but spirited while a Whalers radio announcer tried to put a positive spin on the game: “It’s truly a match-up of David versus Goliath here today, but Nantucket has a chance to make history here ... If they lose they will be 0-10 on the season, but if they beat the Vineyard they will be remembered as one of the greatest teams ever,” he said.
Things started ominously for the Whalers, as the Vineyard’s Nick Gross returned the opening kickoff 76 yards for a quick touchdown, followed by a two-point conversion from Erik Dolliver. In a mere 13 seconds, the Vineyard led the contest 8-0.
But the Whalers answered right back with a five play, 70-yard scoring drive capped by a 15-yard touchdown pass from Welch to wide receiver Josh Butler. After a failed two-point conversion, the score was 8-6 in favor of the Vineyard. The Whalers defense then forced the Vineyarders to go three-and-out, but the home team couldn’t take advantage, turning over the ball on downs at the Vineyard’s 34-yard-line.
Senior quarterback Mike McCarthy then went to work, leading his team on a 66-yard drive capped by Matt Costello’s three-yard run up the gut just before the end of the first quarter.
McCarthy owned the second quarter, throwing for three touchdown passes, first to Gross on an 11-yard out pattern and next on a 16-yard wide-receiver screen to Randall Jette. After a Nantucket fumble, McCarthy unloaded a 45-yard bomb to senior Doug Asselin — the prettiest play of the game — to give the Vineyard 37-6 at the half.
When the game resumed, it had a markedly different feel. Much of hometown crowd had left the bitter cold aluminium stands and headed home, and coach Herman took out most of his starters and substituted second and third-string players.
But the Vineyard’s second team was equal to Nantucket’s first team; the visitors stormed down the field on their first third-quarter possession to score on an eight-yard touchdown run by Josh Butler to make it 43-6.
The second half was also played at a markedly brisker pace. While the first half took approximately 90 minutes to play, the second half took just over 30 minutes, thanks largely to some interesting decisions by the clock operator to let the clock run on incomplete passes and plays that ended out-of-bounds.
Even the post-game celebration by the Vineyarders, which usually includes lengthy rumination and interviews, was abbreviated by the cold. The battle cry of the Vineyarders as they embraced the cup was a simple shout of “sweet six!,” a reference to the team’s current run of six Island Cups in a row (and nine out of ten).
As coach Herman addressed his team after the game, his counterpart coach Capizzo stealthily slid in behind and offered his own words of encouragement. “I want to wish you luck in the [playoffs] . . . I’m behind you even though I don’t like you,” he said half-jokingly.
There was some sentiment during the game the two teams might be playing in their last Island Cup. Next year the Vineyarders move from the Mayflower League Large to the Eastern Athletic Conference. They may still play several Mayflower League teams on an at-large basis, including Nantucket, although that decision could be up to Nantucket.
Nantucket athletic director Chris Maury said before the game that school and athletic officials will consider whether to continue the Island Cup after the season comes to an end. Nantucket recently added a number of additional sports programs, including soccer, and has a hard time filling out a roster in football.
“I would have to say at this point we don’t know,” Mr. Maury said.
Coach Herman said after the game he hopes the Island Cup tradition will endure. “As long as they’re able to field a varsity team, I think we’ll try to continue,” coach Herman said.