Little Different on Thanksgiving Despite Changes to Playoff System

Massachusetts has never been a place where traditions are kicked to the curb.

Therefore, it comes as little shock that the revision of the high school football playoff system in the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association — the commonwealth’s governing body of high school athletics — was hampered by one of the most unique traditions the state has to offer, Thanksgiving Day football games.

“It’s a major, major tradition in Massachusetts,” said MIAA assistant director Peter Smith. “It’s a school event, it’s a community event, and an alumni event; something people take pride in within their respective communities. That’s why I think the football committee and coaches association recognized that and wanted to maintain those games in place.”

The original system, done away with after the 2012 season, featured 19 divisions across three sections (East, Central, West), where four teams in each division qualified for the postseason, a grand total of 76 schools across the state. It made for great drama on Thanksgiving mornings. League championships were on the line. Playoff implications could be found with virtually every game.

But the system needed tweaking. In other sports, the number of tournament participants were in the triple digits. Three or four state champions were crowned as well, as opposed to the 19 in football. Brackets were broken up into sectionals (North, South, Central, West), setting up a state final between the winners of semi-finals games between the North champion and South champion, Central champion and West champion.

That’s why the MIAA football committee voted to begin a two-year trial version of a revised playoff system. Teams are now split into six divisions across the state, with a seven-week qualifying round to begin the season, followed by sectionals that feature eight teams per division. Like other MIAA-sponsored sports, the sectional brackets result in a North vs. South/East vs. West semifinal round. Winners of those matchups go onto Gillette Stadium for state championship games.

But it all goes back to Thanksgiving. The worry was that the importance of the games would be diminished. Turkey Day rivals could face each other up to three times in a season — league play, playoffs, Thanksgiving. Teams bound for Foxboro would be more apt to rest players for the big game the following weekend.

A team in such a position is Xaverian Brothers High School. The Westwood school is ranked No. 1 in the state, set to play Everett for the Division 1 crown on December 6. Rest players on Thanksgiving with the big picture in mind, right? Wrong.

Xaverian hosts St. John’s Prep Thursday morning. The Catholic Conference title will be on the line in that game, with both teams bringing unblemished 3-0 league records into the game. Head coach Charles Stevenson said the conference crown is ‘very important’ to the team, and feels little damage has been done to Thanksgiving football under the new postseason format.

“Leagues have it within their ability to prevent Thanksgiving rivals from playing,” said Stevenson. “Some may have to play in a playoff game, but I don’t think if they met in a playoff game — particularly if it was a good playoff game — that it would diminish Thanksgiving at all.”

Steve Dembowski’s Swampscott High School squad will see rival Marblehead for the second time in 2014 when they take the field Thursday morning at Swampscott’s Blocksidge Field. While Dembowski feels the buzz remains in the rivalry, which traces back to 1910, he feels the ‘mystery of the unknown’ has been lost from teams not seeing each other for the first time in late November.

“I think [playing a second time] takes some of the magic away on Thanksgiving morning,” said Dembowski, whose been the Swampscott head coach since 1999. “There’s not alot of surprises, you know the other team; they know us, we know them. People can come in with preconceived notions of how the game’s going to be played out based upon the first game.”

Dembowski, who played an integral role in the drafting of the new playoff system, would like to see Thanksgiving games decide league championships, as the Catholic Conference is currently the lone league in the state that provides such implications on the holiday. He says it is part of provisions being set forth with the system.

The consensus is that the playoff system was needed and long overdue. Based off what was seen in 2013, the playoffs served its purpose — incorporate more schools while giving more teams a chance — while not doing damage to the Thanksgiving tradition.

Thanksgiving Games of Note

Billerica at Chelmsford, 10:00- Yes, friends from California, Billerica is that town you’ve been asked to pronounce a time or ten. Chelmsford is the hometown of Jack Eichel.

Bishop Fenwick at Pingree, 10:00- Fenwick’s state-leading 26-game winning streak ended last weekend when the Crusaders lost to Abington, 29-14, in the Division 5 semifinal.

Boston English vs. Boston Latin, 10:00, Harvard Stadium- The two teams have played every year since 1887, the 128-year streak of playing each other the longest in the country. English won last year for the first time since 1997.

Holliston at Westwood, 10:00- Holliston quarterback Nick Athy is one of most dynamic players in the state.

Marshfield at Duxbury, 10:00- Marshfield, who went 0-11 in 2012, are gearing up for the Division 2 state final.

Masconomet at North Andover, 10:00- The two teams will play for the final time on Thanksgiving, as North Andover will begin playing Andover beginning in 2015.

Medford at Malden, 10:00- The series dates back to 1889.

Plymouth South at Plymouth North, 10:00- A battle for bragging rights in the town where Thanksgiving started.

Wellesley at Needham, 10:00- The oldest football rivalry between two public high schools in the country, and Professor Donohue will be the first to tell you that.

Lynn English at Lynn Classical, 10:15- Boston Globe sport columnist and BU alum Chris Gasper — whose alma mater Lynn Classical — wrote a great piece on this rivalry last season, when the two teams faced off for the 100th time. Great read, and reflective of what Thanksgiving football means to communities around here.

St. John’s Prep at Xaverian, 10:15- Xaverian is the best team in the state and set to play in the Super Bowl on December 6. But the Catholic Conference title is the worry at this moment. Prep, where Ice Bucket Challenge launcher Pete Frates starred, is coached by former NFL quarterback Brian St. Pierre. Meanwhile, Xaverian’s roster boasts Cody Tippett, son of Patriots legend Andre Tippett, and D’Andre Wilfork, son of Patriots nosetackle Vince Wilfork.

Patriots On Thanksgiving in 2015?

Thanksgiving Day has been kind to Tom Brady over his Hall of Fame career. He made his NFL debut on Thanksgiving in 2000, coming in late in fourth quarter of a 34-9 blowout loss to the Detroit Lions. In three appearances since, the Patriots have won by a combined score of 114-55.

There’s no AFC teams playing Thanksgiving football for the first time since the conference was aligned in 1970. Could we see the Patriots on the holiday in 2015? It’s possible.

The NFL television contract, which traditionally requires CBS to air road games of AFC teams, while FOX gets NFC road games, has a provision beginning in 2014 that allows the traditional Thanksgiving games (Dallas, Detroit) to be played in the prime time slot, which was introduced in 2006.

The Patriots 2015 schedule features a trip to Dallas, who hosts the 4:30 game every year. Don’t be surprised if the Patriots are the team making the trip to Arlington, Texas on Thanksgiving when the schedule is released in April. Owner Bob Kraft, the a board member for Viacom (parent company of CBS) and the chairman of the NFL Broadcast Committee, carries strong clout when it comes to game scheduling. No doubt he’ll push for a Brady-Tony Romo showdown on Thanksgivng, as will a few others.

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Posted by: Patrick O'Rourke on