Rally signs planted along Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road paved the way to Daniel G. McCarthy Field on Saturday afternoon, greeting the buses of Nantucket football players and carloads of Whaler fans. It was the day of the Island Cup, the 36th edition of the rivalry game between the Vineyard and Nantucket football teams.

Nantucket entered the game with a 8-2 record and a conference championship, hoping to make history by ending their 11-year Island Cup drought. The Vineyard was 5-5, fresh off a five-game win streak and hoping to close out the season with a winning record.

Vineyard coach Don Herman said this is likely his last Island Cup at home; he plans to retire after next year. — Mark Lovewell

Some signs on the road referenced whale meat and harpoons; others, Vineyard Pride. One sign simply read “You Can’t Have The Cup.”

And it was that sign that proved correct, as a stifling Vineyard defensive effort coupled with a late offensive surge to defeat the Whalers 21-7 in a rough, penalty-filled game. The Island Cup would stay home for another year.

Junior running back Jacob Cardoza scored two of the Vineyard’s three touchdowns. But the victory was a team effort, with a strong defensive showing and a great game by senior quarterback Mike Mussell.

The team wanted to go out on a high note for the last game of the season, junior Ben Clark said. “You put everything on the line.”

The game also took on special significance for Vineyard coach Don Herman. Coach Herman said he will retire after next season; this was his last Island Cup game on the Vineyard.

Junior running back Jacob Cardoza makes a run for it. — Mark Lovewell

Fans began to trickle into the stands with just under an hour until game time. The Vineyard junior varsity squad, ranks especially thin this year, had taken a tough 26-0 loss to the Whalers in their morning game. Smoke billowed from the grills at the concessions stand, where the junior class served up hot dogs alongside cups of chowder.

Varsity letter jackets from all eras lined the sidelines, as Vineyard football alums arrived to cheer on their team. Purple blankets kept the crowd warm against the biting wind chill. On the Nantucket side, former Whaler coach Vito Capizzo watched warmups. Capizzo and former Vineyard head coach John Bacheller were honored at the end of the game for establishing the Island Cup.

The Cup itself was brand-new this year. The old trophy Bacheller picked out in Falmouth in 1978 has been retired.

Senior co-captains Mussell, David Macias, and Liam Smith stepped on to the field for the coin toss, which Nantucket won. The Whalers deferred; the Vineyard would receive in the first half.

A moment of silence was held in honor of the late William Leanus, who refereed at the past 18 Island Cup games. Leanus passed away from cancer earlier this year.

The Minnesingers performed a perfectly harmonic Star Spangled Banner, as the flag at the far end of the field flapped along with those held by a veterans’ honor guard. The game was dedicated to those who have served, and halftime also featured a ceremony honoring all Island veterans.

Vineyard team was tough on defense throughout the game. — Mark Lovewell

As the teams lined up for kickoff, a young fan bundled up in a hoodie and puffy jacket made a bold game prediction.

“Jacob’s going to have, like, five touchdowns,” he said, referring to Cardoza, who scored both of the Vineyard’s touchdowns in last year’s Island Cup.

Senior Spencer Schofield took the kickoff return for the Vineyard, going 15 yards before meeting the Whaler line. Carries by Cardoza and Clark moved the team downfield before quarterback Mike Mussell’s pass was intercepted by Whaler senior Justin Halford. Nantucket’s celebration of the shift led to the first of several Whaler penalties in the half.

The teams traded possessions for the rest of the quarter, with both forcing turnovers on downs. A Nantucket punt was fumbled and recovered by junior Austin Chandler, putting the ball back into Vineyard hands on the 35-yard line and setting up a piecemeal march into the end zone. A 16-yard pass from Mussell to Cardoza and an 11-yard run by Chandler put the Vineyard in goal territory as the clock closed out the first quarter, and the Vineyard picked right up in the second as Clark scampered a quick four yards into the end zone.

Sophomore James Sashin kicked the extra point. Sashin was three-for-three with points after touchdowns, a feat particularly impressive given the windy conditions.

“I thought he handled the wind very well,” Coach Herman said. “That was big. And we had some good punts from him. “ Sashin punted for 40 yards in the second quarter.

Nantucket attempted to answer the Vineyard’s score, but runs by Fervon Phillips and Keenan Phillips came up short as they met the Vineyard defense. The Whalers attempted a field goal to no avail.

With two minutes left in the half, Nantucket brought in backup quarterback Andrew Ray. Another field goal attempt went wide as the ball was carried by the wind.

Crowd gathered to cheer on the home team. — Mark Lovewell

But the wind was in Nantucket’s favor as the second half began.

“I told our defense when we started the second half, I’m putting you with your backs against the wall right away. We’re giving them the wind, you guys have got to make a stand right here,” Coach Herman said. “They didn’t.”

Nantucket launched a scoring drive immediately after the half began, marking downfield on carries by the Phillips brothers and Morgan Perry. Keenan Phillips scored with six minutes left in the quarter. The Whaler extra point was good, and the game was tied, 7-7.

“Nantucket came right down the field,” Coach Herman said. “They had a great drive, and they smacked us right in the mouth. We didn’t do a very good job responding, but we did eventually.”

A somber tone set over the game after Nantucket’s Halford nabbed a fumble recovery but was crushed by the ensuing pileup. Teams took a knee and the crowds quieted. Halford was taken to the hospital in an ambulance with unknown injuries. As he left the field, he raised one arm in reassurance.

Play resumed after a 15 minute delay, with the Vineyard defense stepping up its already impressive efforts. On 4th and seven, the Whalers decided to go for it, but Ray’s pass was incomplete and the ball was back in Vineyard hands.

“Our defense came up huge—the red zone defense was huge,” Mussell said after the game. Chandler led the defense with 15 total tackles (six unassisted). Sophomore Lucas DeBettencourt had 10. And senior co-captain David Macias tied the single-season record for tackles, notching 13 (four unassisted) in the Island Cup to equal James Hagerty’s 2000 record of 123.

Vineyard alums in attendance. — Ivy Ashe

It wasn’t the only record to fall during the game. With 102 passing yards in the game, Mussell eclipsed Alec Tattersall’s single-season total, a record also set during an Island Cup game. Mussell said he hadn’t been happy with his pre-game throwing, but “the wind died down in the second half, fortunately.”

Seconds into the fourth quarter, Mussell hit Chandler with a 25-yard pass as Chandler evaded double coverage to keep his hands on the ball. The quarterback’s next passes came up short, pushing to the Vineyard to 3rd and 5 on the Nantucket 11. But Mussell kept his composure, settling back on the next play to find a wide-open Cardoza in the goal territory. 14-7, Sashin’s steady foot again pulled through, and it was 14-7, Vineyard.

“When they scored right after the half, we knew we had to score,” Chandler said.

“I thought Mike Mussell did a real good job managing the game at quarterback,” Coach Herman said. “The big thing we talked about was stay within yourself. Don’t let this game make you crazy and get you out of control. Stay within yourself, and he did that.”

Tackle in action. — Mark Lovewell

Another defensive crunch culminating in a 4th down stop by senior Mike Mazza killed the next Whaler drive. Nantucket went to punt, and fumbled the snap. In a parallel to the first quarter, the Vineyard received a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct for celebrating.

The 15-yard setback made little difference. Mussell connected with Cardoza on a 36-yard pass on the next play. Cardoza beat out two Whaler defenders to hurtle into the end zone for the second time. Sashin stepped in once more to put the finishing touches on.

Though there were six minutes remaining in the game, the defense shut down the Whalers’ final attack. Nantucket once again found itself hampered by yardage lost in penalties, and the Vineyard recovered the ball on downs. Chandler and Cardoza rattled off three first downs in a row to advance the ball just past midfield. Nantucket called time out. The Vineyard crowd grew louder.

A minute and a half later, time itself ran out. The Cup was staying home. The Vineyarders crowded around the new Island Cup trophy for photos. Some kissed the silver metal.

For the team, the win was the perfect cap to a season that could have been a disaster.

“I can’t say enough about how these guys rebounded,” Coach Herman said. “We were 0 and 4, then 1 and 5…and then we just went on a roll.”

“It’s always good to finish on a win against Nantucket,” he said.

“This was basically my last home Island Cup,” he added. “So I was putting a little bit more pressure on myself because I wanted to keep it here.”

Photo gallery: Scenes from the Island Cup.