This Thanksgiving Day, hundreds and hundreds of high school football players across Massachusetts will wake up to play in what will likely be the final game of their career.
It will be the last time they play for their high school, in front of their town, their family, and play alongside the same teammates they have had for the last four years.
For 16 teams, however, Thanksgiving serves as a bit of a quandary. These teams have the ultimate decision to make - whether to go all in for a win on a day that everyone annually circles on their calendar, or elect to play conservatively with the state championships just a little over a week away.
Ever since the formation of the new MIAA statewide playoff format, many have begun to question the importance of Thanksgiving Day football, especially for those teams on their way to playing in the state championship.
Some still believe in the tradition that Thanksgiving brings. It is the only day out of the entire high school season where everyone is focused on one thing – football. Especially for small public schools, it gives a unique opportunity to put up one final win in what is all likelihood the largest crowd they will play in front of all season.
On the other side of the aisle are those who think the new format has completely ruined the tradition. Now with the state championship matchups determined before Thanksgiving, the games, some would argue, become meaningless – an artificial celebration of the sport.
Xaverian coach Charlie Stevenson respectfully disagrees with that assessment.
In each of the last four years, Stevenson has had to deal with the question of whether to go all in for a Catholic Conference title against St. John’s Prep on Thanksgiving Day, or relax his star players to gear up for the state championship.
In each case, Stevenson has elected to step his foot on the gas pedal and make a full on push for the conference title. The decision backfired against the Hawks in 2013 when Xaverian lost three of their starters in the Thanksgiving Day game, before ultimately losing in lopsided fashion to Central Catholic in the Division 1 state championship one week later.
That unfortunate occurrence did not deter Stevenson one bit, as he has followed the same strategy each of the last two years, and plans on doing so again this time around.
When asked in the lead up to the team’s Thanksgiving showdown in 2014 whether or not he would play his starters after the incident the year before, Stevenson could not have been more clear.
“The fans who are coming here aren’t paying ten dollars to watch people just not play football,” said Stevenson. “You try telling these kids a Catholic Conference title does not mean anything.”
This year sees a handful of different variables thrown in for some teams.
King Philip, who will be making an appearance in the Division 1A state championship game against Reading, is also in pursuit of their first undefeated season in school history. That prospect has given the Warriors’ coaching staff a lot to think about. Do they go for the program's first undefeated season, or play it safe and go for the state title?
After days of debating it, the Warriors’ staff is hoping they put the game away early, allowing some of their younger guys to play the entirety of the second half.
Warriors’ offensive coordinator John Sarianides said it’s a matter of walking a tight rope.
“It’s a difficult balance because you want to win on Thanksgiving Day and position yourself for an undefeated season if you win the Super Bowl,” said Sarianides. “I think it's all about reporting your depth at practice and limiting your starters' snaps. If we can score early and often we can pull some of out starters and go with our younger guys.”
Millis-Hopedale, meanwhile, will be making their first appearance in a state championship since the creation of the new playoff format, when they take on Maynard in the Division 4A title game.
Unlike the Warriors, Millis-Hopedale has elected to not play any of their starting seniors at all.
Coach Dana Olson said he and his coaching staff met for a number of hours agonizing over the decision. Ultimately, the Mohawks have chosen to rest all of their starting seniors, meaning that their opponent, Medway, is likely to see most of Millis-Hopdale’s underclassmen on Thursday.
“We as a staff just ultimately decided that we could not live with ourselves if a senior got hurt in, for all intents and purposes, a meaningless game, and was unable to play in a state championship as a result,” said Olson. “If we had not played Medway earlier in the season the decision may have been different, but since we will be playing them for a second time I just don’t see the need to take the risk.”
The most difficult aspect, Sarianides said, is trying to not give the impression to the upperclassmen that coming out and supporting your community one final time is irrelevant.
Olson, however, made note that his captains fully agreed with the coaching staff’s assessment in believing that Thursday’s game simply is not worth it.
“We went to our captains and they completely agreed with the decision,” said Olson. “Our seniors would obviously love the chance to play, but they know what is at stake.”
One clear positive that has come out of the new playoff format is the additional consideration being given to player safety.
Teams in the past would have to play in some cases three games in 10 days, starting with a conference title game on Thanksgiving, a playoff game early in the following week before ultimately culminating in the state championship that Saturday.
Safety concerns still remain in some cases, however, and that is no more apparent than in the situation Falmouth faces this week.
The Clippers are coming off a bruising battle with Marlboro on Saturday, outlasting the Panthers 27-20 to punch their ticket to the Division 2A State Championship.
Not only is Falmouth going for their first state championship in school history, but they are also gunning for the school’s first undefeated season as well. Three years after the school went winless, the Clippers, behind quarterback Nick Couhig, are on the verge of making Massachusetts high school football history.
Just four days after that state semifinal game against Marlboro, the Clippers will be taking on Barnstable in the team’s annual Thanksgiving Day rivalry game.
Even with minimal time to rest his starters, Falmouth coach Derek Almeida said after his teams’ win over Marlboro that Thanksgiving simply holds too much emotional meaning to sacrifice the game.
“It’s what everyone circles on the calendar and where you get to celebrate your seniors,” said Almeida. “A lot of these guys have not missed a Thanksgiving day game in their entire career, and they have no interest in seeing that change now.”
There is certainly no “right” answer for coaches anymore. Risk losing an undefeated season to achieve the ultimate goal, or increase the odds of winning on the most storied day of the high school football season at the expense of a possible state championship.
Time will tell how all the teams playing for state championships handle Turkey Day, and how those decisions impact their shots at the ultimate prize nine days later.