H.S. Football: Athol, Mahar expecting competitive Thanksgiving showdown

  • Athol’s Riley Reed, left, closes in on Mahar quarterback Kaleb Lemcke during the first quarter of a high school football game between Mahar and host Athol earlier this fall.  PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER EVANS

Staff Writer
Published: 11/23/2022 7:19:12 PM
Modified: 11/23/2022 7:19:01 PM

Athol and Mahar’s annual Thanksgiving Day football game hasn’t produced many close results in the past five years. 

Expect that to change on Thursday. 

The Bears and Senators will square off for the second time this season in what is the oldest Thanksgiving Day rivalry in Western Massachusetts football, one that dates back to 1894 when Orange blanked Athol, 7-0.

Both coaches are expecting it to be a battle – from opening kickoff at 10 a.m. at the Woodward Complex in Orange until the final whistle. 

“There’s been a lot of blowouts the last five years in this game,” Mahar coach Chris Bailey said. “I don't see that happening here. It’s two evenly matched teams. When that happens, you get a game that’s usually decided in the fourth quarter. You’re expecting it to be a slobber knocker. It’s like a boxing match — you’ll take some punches and throw some back, but it’s all about how you stand up to those punches and weather the storm.” 

“When I was at Athol [as a player] I was on teams that had gone in as an underdog and won against Mahar,” Athol coach Josh Talbot added. “I’ve also been part of a team that was a heavy favorite and almost lost. You can throw the records out. These games come down to who wants it more.” 

With changes to the MIAA and scheduling in recent years, the Senators and Bears don’t face off for the first time on Thanksgiving these days. The two teams squared off in an Intercounty League North contest on Oct. 7 at O’Brien Field in Athol. Mahar came out victorious, 22-8. 

When it was initially announced that the teams would play twice a year, many felt it would take away from the Thanksgiving game. That isn’t the case in either locker room, and both teams are appreciative that the rivalry is still around, as many in the state – and Western Mass. – have lost their Turkey Day clashes. 

“You wonder if playing twice a year takes something away but it doesn’t feel like it does,” Talbot said. “Thanksgiving still feels special. My wife’s family is from Greenfield and they don’t have [a game with Turners Falls] anymore. It feels good that we still have this and that the communities still really care about this game. We’re very fortunate.” 

Bailey said the Mahar coaching staff feels the same way, appreciating that the long standing rivalry is ongoing. Playing twice a year only helps intensify the rivalry. 

“Who wouldn’t want the opportunity to beat your rival twice,” Bailey said. “The Red Sox and the Yankees play 19 times a year and those games are still intense. These kids that grow up in this town know the magnitude of this game. Even the kids who haven’t played in it have grown up with it. The kids are excited. It’s great that this game is so deep rooted in tradition and is still ongoing. Both teams have had some tough years with numbers recently and the fact that we still have this is a testament to the area. It’s still supported by both communities and that’s a great thing. We always get great turnout for these games. We respect each other and have a healthy rivalry.”

While the Bears are seeking revenge for their regular season loss to the Senators, Mahar is looking to avenge its Thanksgiving loss to Athol in 2021, one in which the Bears rolled to a 52-12 victory. 

In games of this magnitude, it tends to come down to who can make the big play in the biggest of moments. 

“I don’t see how this game isn’t competitive,” Talbot said. “It’ll come down to who can make plays. I’m looking forward to seeing who’s going to step up and make a big play because that’s usually what happens in these ones. We know what they like to do and they know what we like to do. It’ll come down to who can make a play.” 

Both Mahar and Athol enter the game with 4-6 records, though it’s the Bears that come in on a three-game winning streak. 

Athol closed out its regular season with a thrilling 34-28 overtime win against Franklin Tech. In its non-playoff games, the Bears blew out McCann Tech 42-0 and earned a tightly-fought 34-28 win over Smith Vocational in its last time on the gridiron. 

While confidence is high, Talbot is cognizant of how his team felt in its last meeting against Mahar. The Bears entered the regular season contest fresh off an overtime win against Greenfield, only to fall to the Senators the ensuing week. 

“We have a little bit of confidence,” Talbot said. “We’ve righted the ship. We were confident going into Mahar last time. You can look back on that and remember to stay humble. This is a team and coaching staff we have a lot of respect for. We know they’ll be amped up and ready to go. As much as we think we’ve grown since the last time we played them, we won’t know until about noon on Thursday.” 

The Senators closed out their regular season on a high note with a 20-8 win over Palmer. It hasn’t had the same success in its non-playoff games, falling to Pathfinder 21-0 and playing Frontier close before turnovers took over, falling to the Redhawks 33-12. 

“A big thing for us is if we get down, we need to realize it’s not the biggest thing in the world,” Bailey said. “We can come back. Mistakes are going to happen, it’s how you come back from those to try to win the game. One thing we need to do is protect the football. The games we’ve lost, we’ve turned the ball over. We turned it over six times against Frontier. If we protect the ball I think we’ll be alright.” 

It was the run game that propelled Mahar in its win over Athol earlier in the season. Xander Roberts plowed in for two scores while quarterback Kaleb Lemcke also found the end zone. The Senators finished the game with 191 yards on the ground, a mark they hope to accomplish the second time around. 

The Bears offense will be relying on Sawyer Lefsyk on Thursday, who has come on strong down the stretch. Shea Brennan has emerged as a playmaker on the Bear offense while Aidan Melanson has as many touchdowns as he does incompletions during the non-playoff games. 

Neither team is expecting many surprises on Thursday in what should be a tight contest. 

“We’ve had enough preparation where everyone knows what they’re doing,” Bailey said. “We both have the same record going in which is about right. It’s two evenly matched teams. We’re expecting their best and they’ll get our best. You like to say it’s business as usual but of course it’s not. The kids are excited and we’re excited. This is a great tradition and I’m glad it’s something we still do.”

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