While traditional rivalries have waned in recent years, one remains the same.
Athol and Mahar first met on the gridiron in 1894 and have met on Turkey Day every year since 1953 (except for the COVID year 2020). In 2016, the Bears and Senators began a new realignment of playing twice a year – to keep the Thanksgiving tradition alive while also having regular season competition – and their first matchup of 2022 will be played Friday at the O’ Brien Field take place.
“It’s always a big week,” said Mahar coach Chris Bailey. “Since we started playing twice a year things have really intensified. People were worried that the two games would lose meaning, but it had the opposite effect. It’s another game that kids will stand up for. We emphasized to the children that, like every year, records don’t matter. What you did before doesn’t matter. You have to show up and play hard to win these games.”
Athol coach Josh Talbot found success against the Senators when he played with the Bears and now that he’s training against them for the first time, he’s hoping he can continue to come out on top in these rivalry games.
“I told my kids when I played football at Athol High School that we never lost to Mahar,” Talbot said. “I would love it if that’s still the case when I retire.”
The Bears have had the upper hand over Mahar in recent years, winning both matchups a season ago and winning a thriller over the Senators in 2020. Mahar won both games in 2019 while the two teams split in 2017 and 2018.
This year Athol comes into the game with all the confidence in the world after clinching a 6-0 overtime win over Greenfield in last Friday’s Intercounty League opener, his first win of the year. Sawyer Lefsyk ran from 10 yards for the Bears the winning goal.
While the win is a huge boost for Athol, Talbot worries that he is overconfident going into Friday’s match against Mahar.
“We prepared really hard last week,” said Talbot. “The kids were super focused, especially on defence. We made a fresh start when the league games started and the kids embraced that. Now let’s get through the last week. It feels like we forgot how much work we had to put in to prepare for Greenfield. We didn’t have the same focus this week.
“Last week it felt like our confidence had returned a bit,” added Talbot. “The way we’re working this week, we either think we’re the greatest thing in the world or we think we can just show up and beat Mahar, and neither is true. Hopefully we’re ready to play Friday night.”
Mahar, on the other hand, opened his season with back-to-back wins over SICS and McCann Tech. It closed its non-conference list in a loss to Drury and fell 20-13 to Franklin Tech in the Intercounty North opener.
Bailey believes his squad needs to be at the top of their game to pull off a win on Friday.
“We have to play our best game,” Bailey said. “Athol showed that last week [against Greenfield]. Some people thought that was a surprise but I think Athol showed what they are capable of. They’re on the rise and we’ve taken a few losses where we didn’t play well. We have to right the ship.”
Talbot sees a sports team when he turns on the Mahar film, knowing what problems they will pose to his defense.
“On film, they’re fast, they’re fast, and they move well in space,” Talbot said. “Offensively, they do a lot of the same things we do, but they do it better. This is worrying for us. They have some dynamic parts. They put a lot of pressure on the defensive. I know we have a tough challenge ahead of us.”
Big plays — as well as injured starting quarterback Kaleb Lemcke — hurt the Senators against the Eagles. Mahar scored twice to open the game and dominated possession, but Tech quarterback Gabe Tomasi found Nate Fuess for a 60-yard touchdown and Josiah Little returned a punt for a touchdown. These explosive games doomed Mahar and were a focus this week.
Lemcke is expected to play on Friday, with backup Morgan Softic ready to be called in if necessary.
“We played Tech OK,” Bailey said. “We came out at the beginning and did what they wanted, but Tech made a couple of big games. It’s not like they pushed us around. Dating Kaleb hurt us. Morgan is a capable backup but he’s different and it changes our offense. That’s not an excuse – we have to perform no matter who’s on the field. One thing we touched on this week is not to get on each other. There was a level of frustration on all sides – including me – and we came up against each other and that can’t happen. We have to make sure we pick each other up.”
Talbot is hoping his offense can put together some drives this week. Athol hasn’t found the end zone since his Week 2 loss to Pathfinder, and getting there on Friday won’t be a task as the Bears ditched all five linemen during practice this week with no guarantees will be able to fit Friday.
“We have to figure out how we can score a few points,” said Talbot. “A long time ago someone told me that the best way to win is to score more points than the other team. We haven’t scored a touchdown since the Pathfinder game. It would be silly to think that we can win another game 6-0. We have to come up with something on offense and we lost a few points on defense. Hopefully things can come together.”
Kick-off is at 7pm at O’Brien Field.
■ Also on Friday, Greenfield tries to recover from his loss to the Bears and hosts Palmer at Vets Field. When the two teams met last fall, the Panthers dropped 20 points in the fourth quarter and pulled away with a 27-0 win. Palmer opened the league game with a 21-0 loss to Ware.
Franklin Tech will be headed to take on defending Intercounty North champion Ware on Friday. The Eagles will be hoping to get more of those explosive plays against a stingy Ware defense.
At the Intercounty South, Frontier is hoping to bounce back from his loss to Lee, host Hoosac Valley. The Hurricanes are the defending Intercounty South champions but have made a 3-1 start this fall.