For islanders, this was The Game

With contest canceled, Vineyard, Nantucket mourn a lost rite

Martha’s Vineyard (above) and Nantucket were well prepared, but not to face each other. Martha’s Vineyard (above) and Nantucket were well prepared, but not to face each other. (Rob Benchley for The Boston Globe)
By James Sullivan
Globe Correspondent / November 21, 2009

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OAK BLUFFS - For year-round residents of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, it was an eagerly anticipated rite of fall: On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, two proudly independent communities tussled for bragging rights in the season-ending high school football matchup.

Both teams, from small schools, routinely overachieved. Several of the so-called Island Cup games determined league championships and Super Bowl berths. On game day year after year, fans, friends, and family of the visiting team arrived by chartered ferry on their opponent’s shores, storming the pier like an invading army.

But not this year. Amid school budget cuts and declining student interest in football, the fabled Whalers-Vineyarders showdown was canceled for the first time in nearly half a century, leaving the future of the rivalry in doubt and islanders dismayed.

“I’ve told people many times, there are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and the Island Cup,’’ said Donald Herman, the feisty Vineyard coach of more than 20 years, who learned over the summer that the game would not take place and is still fuming.

Vineyard native Emmett Carroll, 65, who ran the Menemsha Texaco station for years, remembers how the games united his island: “Nothing accentuated that more than going to Nantucket. And if we won, it was pretty exciting, coming out of the ferry with the fire trucks blazing.’’

Chalk up the loss to missed assignments, dropped balls, and prevailing winds.

With both schools facing financial woes, they say they no longer can afford to fly players and coaches between islands, as they have done for years in the absence of regular interisland ferry service, which ends after the summer. Doubts were also raised about chartered “fan ferries’’ funded by each side’s booster clubs.

A communication breakdown between incoming athletic directors, the retirement of a legendary Nantucket coach, and the changing culture of school sports appeared to contribute to the cancellation.

Now, the good-natured taunting between the rivals has been replaced by a war of words over which island is to blame.

Nantucketers believe the Vineyard is making them the bad guys for first raising these issues. “They basically tried to dump the entire mess on us,’’ said athletic director Chris Maury.

Countered Herman: “They knew a long time ago this game wasn’t going to take place.’’

For the seasonal communities - Nantucket’s population drops to 10,000 in winter, the Vineyard’s to about 15,000 - the Island Cup was the event of the school year. Games were preceded by contests between the JVs, youth teams, even sandlot scrimmages between island youths.

The rivalry, which became an annual tradition in 1960, intensified in the late 1970s, when winners were first awarded the Island Cup.

The game is “the heart and soul of the whole program,’’ said Vineyard defensive tackle and cocaptain Kevin O’Donnell, a senior. Without it, he said, “this season is kind of off balance.’’

For 45 years, Nantucket coach Vito Capizzo did everything in his considerable powers to get boys on “the Rock’’ to commit, famously delivering miniature footballs to newborns. But its football program has seen declining enrollment; last year, the island’s varsity roster dipped to 17. When Capizzo retired in May, Maury, a first-year athletic director who was the Whalers’ MVP in 1970, thought long and hard about the future of the football program. More boys were opting to play soccer and golf; hockey now has a fall travel season.

This year, Nantucket instituted a participation fee, $100 to $150 per sport. “People hear the word Nantucket, and they think ‘unlimited cash flow,’ ’’ said police Sergeant Daniel Mack. “But the town is in a real bad way financially.’’

With air travel (about $10,000 per contest) eliminated, Maury balked at asking Nantucket’s booster club to charter a ferry (another $10,000) without doing the same for other sports. Both schools agree that the alternative to a chartered boat - two regular ferry rides sandwiched around a bus trip between terminals in Hyannis and Woods Hole - is too time-consuming.

Nantucket raised the possibility of holding the Island Cup on the mainland, where both teams could take scheduled ferries, as they do for other away games. Herman opposed it.

“Too many groups rely on our home games for fund-raisers,’’ he said on a recent Saturday over breakfast at Linda Jean’s in Oak Bluffs, his voice hoarse from his Friday night game. “Plus, we’re not going to get a neutral site for free.’’

More drastically, Maury floated the notion that he might not field a varsity football team. Capizzo, who retired just seven wins shy of 300, suffered through an 0-10 season in his last year.

Then, in early August, Maury got a message from his Vineyard counterpart, Sandy Mincone, saying the Vineyard had decided to move forward with a new opponent.

“That message is still on my voice mail,’’ Maury said.

Some believe the issue is less about budget cuts than the Vineyard’s recent Island Cup win streak. Though Nantucket holds the series edge, 35-24 (with three ties), the Vineyard has won all but one game since 1999.

“People on the Vineyard are saying the only reason we’re not playing is because we were getting the shnockers kicked out of us,’’ Maury said.

But John Aloisi, the new Nantucket coach, says he would welcome the challenge. A star quarterback from the glory years of the mid-’90s, when the team’s exploits drew the attention of Sports Illustrated, he returned to the island this year to replace his former head coach. Going into the final weekend, he had led his undermanned squad to a respectable 6-5 record.

The future of the game is up in the air. Martha’s Vineyard has a two-year commitment to Brighton, its opponent today. Nantucket defeated Cape Tech-Harwich, 14-12, yesterday.

If the Cup can be resurrected, Aloisi said, both sides would have to swallow some pride.

“I tell the players, if a bad play happens, you learn from it, and you make the next one.’’