Local Thanksgiving Day football matchups always provide bragging rights for winners and a lifetime of memories. Beating your arch-rival at the annual 10 a.m. game is special. It doesn't get any better, right?
It does this year.
Thursday, more than in any season in recent memory, every single Turkey Day tussle in the Southeastern Connecticut Patch area carries state playoff implications, from Ledyard playing to secure a quarterfinal home game to New London, Stonington and Waterford facing a win-or-out scenario.
It's hard to imagine a Thanksgiving Day with more ramifications. Here is a capsule view of Fitch at Ledyard, New London at Norwich Free Academy, Stonington at Westerly and Waterford at East Lyme. Montville hosts Saint Bernard Nov. 22 in a 6:30 p.m. game with no playoff bid at stake for the first time in five years.
Fitch (5-4) at Ledyard (8-1)
Ledyard coach Jim Buonocore has won four straight Colonel Ledyard Sword trophies, one in his last season at Fitch and three straight with the Colonels. After its 28-20 comeback win at Branford last week, Ledyard clinched a Class M state berth and now stands No. 3 in the playoff seeding. It needs to beat Fitch to clinch a Nov. 29 quarterfinal home game.
Fitch (5-4) is a worthy if inconsistent opponent, owning a 14-0 win over New London as its jewel game. The Falcons feature a strong defense, paced by 280-pound tackle Cody Wheeler and linebacker Mike Siniero, which has contained the run all season.
Ledyard relies on workhorse Alex Manwaring (1,750 yards, 17 TDs) and its junior-laden offensive line. But the Colonels turned to the air behind quarterback John Rainey and slotback Slade Baxley against Branford, which held Manwaring to 57 yards.
Fitch relies on its Double Wing rushing attack, with a stable of runners led by junior Saffwan Davis (700 yards). The Falcons will root for New London to beat NFA, which would give Fitch a co-ECC Large title.
Ledyard, the ECC Medium champ, has played great defense all season, paced by linebackers Matt Daggett and Dallas Smith, lineman Josh Lawrence and Baxley in the secondary.
"Fitch is a big game because it is our next game," Buonocore said. "We are not going to deviate from what got us here - That is one game at a time. We are excited about the playoffs and competing for a state championship but we have to handle our first order of business and that is Thanksgiving Day."
New London (8-1) at NFA (7-2)
In a stacked Class L field, two losses won't make the playoffs. New London, No. 5 in playoff points, needs to beat NFA, which could sneak into the Class LL top eight and clinch the ECC Large Division with a win.
The Whalers are also playing for a share of the division, though post-season is the prime motivation. If the season ended today, New London would travel to powerhouse Masuk (No. 4/ and former NL QB Casey Cochran in the quarterfinal. New London would prefer to see Coventry/Windham Tech so early or at least play at home, and a win over Class LL NFA should clinch that.
NL features offensive balance with running back Kyle McKinnon (1,200 yards, 21 TDs), QB Robert Key (1,500 passing yards, 19 TDs) and receivers Khaleed Fields and Jevon Elmore. The latter two also lead a NL secondary to be busy against a strong NFA passing game.
Voghens Larrieux and Malcolm Simmons have played well all season on the lines, giving NL a rare size advantage against NFA.
Waterford (6-3) at East Lyme (4-5)
Despite its loss to Windsor, Class L's top-ranked team, last week, Waterford (No. 7 Class M) will make its first postseason since 2003 if it beats East Lyme. A win here would give Waterford rare consecutive victories over the Vikings. Waterford's 7-3 mark didn't make the states last year, but quality wins over NFA, Stonington and Fitch gives the Lancers enough to make the top eight if it takes care of business.
The theme for Waterford this year? Play like warriors on defense and like road warriors in general. The Lancers have not played a home game this year while WHS is undergoing renovations. Coach Mike Ellis points to Waterford's senior leadership as a key to remaining upbeat under less than ideal conditions.
"The players are disappointed that they cannot have a home game but they have not let that affect their focus on the task at hand," Ellis said. "They have chosen not to make it an issue and to simply work as hard as possible to try and be the best team they can be."
Senior Brian Gencarelli's 650 passing yards and Y-Kim Sheppard's running key a balanced if unspectacular Waterford offense. The Lancer defense has played very well after a slow start, powered by David Willox, Ron Baude, Ivar Wirta and Zach Cash on the line, Dakota Jones, Kobey Coburn and Matt Tulba at linebacker and Gencarelli in the secondary.
Linebacker Chad Berry and safety Adam Salafia (10 interceptions) give East Lyme defensive playmakers.
Here's an interesting thought. If the Lancers prevail, they could finish No. 6 in Class M and meet Ledyard in a Nov. 29 quarterfinal.
Stonington (6-3) at Westerly (7-2)
A fourth win in five years over Westerly in the nation's most-played rivalry (152nd game here) would usually be cause for Stonington celebration. But there's more at stake now as a victory would also send SHS into post-season for the first time in coach A.J. Massengale's eight-year tenure.
Stonington has lived and died with fantastic finishes, losing by one to Waterford on the last play and nipping Fitch, NFA and Foran late in the fourth quarter. Sophomores Harry Calmar (750 yards, 11 TDs) and Jake Poirier (550) lead a deep Double Wing running game.
Stonington will be tested against Westerly, which has qualified for the Rhode Island Division II semifinals. The Bulldogs feature a powerful running attack averaging nearly 250 yards a game.
This series is tight. Stonington leads all-time with a 69-65-17 record while Westerly boasts a Thanksgiving edge, 47-41-11.
St. Bernard (4-5) at Montville (5-4)
Montville, a playoff participant in the last three seasons, looks to secure a winning season, while St. Bernard is out to cement a return to respectability under first-year coach Scott Cook, a former Montville assistant.
The Indians welcomed the return to health of top linemen Jake Basilica and Isaiah Holloway in a 56-20 win over Bacon Nov. 11. The Indian offense has produced solid numbers behind quarterback Nick Clemons (1,350 passing yards, 17 TDs), receivers Brandon Johnson (666 yards, 8 Td catches) and Chad Mooney (6 TDs) and back Ken Strecker (700 yards).
The Saints are dangerous in the passing game with quarterback Phil Jenkins and receivers Sean Hurley (8 TDs) and Jon Malchiodi.