With its dominating 35-6 victory on Thursday, Cumberland High put a halt to a four-game winning streak by Woonsocket in the annual Thanksgiving Day contest. The Clippers continued their hot streak and momentum for their upcoming Division II semifinal tilt at Chariho Regional this Tuesday night with their seventh straight victory.
To most, it was no surprise that Cumberland came out on top. The Clippers are a potential Super Bowl squad, while Woonsocket has struggled this season. Down in numbers and missing some key players, the Villa Novans finished 1-6 in Div. II-B and were outscored by their opponents, 177-81.
But Cumberland coach Chris Skurka and Woonsocket coach Carnell Henderson will be the first to acknowledge that it's not always status quo when it comes to the Turkey Day game. Thanksgiving is different. No matter who has the better record or who is struggling, both teams have a record of 0-0 in the traditional contest.
Skurka and Henderson should know. Twenty years ago on Turkey Day, the 38-year-old coaches were on the other side of the field as players for their respective squads.
“I don't remember plays. I don't remember highlights,” Henderson said. “I just remember the joy of it.”
The rivalry began back in 1964 when the Villa Novans eked out a 12-6 victory. There have only been a handful of one-sided affairs, including the Clippers’ 51-14 drubbing of the Novans in 1979, the largest winning margin of the series.
But a majority of the games over the years have been competitive. The two coaches offer a simple reason.
“I think it's just that tradition of playing football on Thanksgiving,” Skurka said. “Everybody is there to see the game. It might be the only game they see all year. I think that adds to it. You are always playing for pride. You feel a lot about a lot of games but the Thanksgiving game you always seem to bring out a little extra.”
“You can go 0-9, 0-10,” Henderson said. “If you win that game, it was a successful season. I've seen years where we went 7-3 and there were no playoffs. Thanksgiving, that was our playoff.”
During their high school years, Skurka and Henderson had the chance to play against each other won their third straight holiday meeting with a 20-6 triumph.
Henderson, an all-state running back/defensive back, was one of the heroes in that game with a touchdown. Skurka was a top lineman for the Clippers and earned all-division at season's end.
“I know I played against him,” admitted Henderson. “But I didn't really know who he was. Linemen are kind of the unsung heroes in the game.”
The Clipper coach clearly remembers his counterpart, who later earned All-American honors at Boston University.
“He's was an excellent football player,” Skurka said. “He was one of the best in the state at the time. You couldn't miss him. You knew who he was, no question.
“I tackled him a few times, but that's about it,” he continued. “He was a very good football player and obviously had a great career after that at college at BU. He was a class athlete and all-state athlete.”
As juniors, only Henderson had the chance to play on Thanksgiving. Before changing the playoff format more than a decade ago, only the top two teams in the division were awarded a chance to play in the Super Bowl. During the 1989-90 season, Woonsocket went into the holiday contest with a date against Rogers in the Division I championship the following week.
Although the Villa Novans would come up short against the Vikings in the title game, they still secured a 36-12 decision over the Clippers on Thanksgiving.
Henderson stated that despite a “more important” game a few days later, easing up on Turkey Day was never an option.
“When you were playing, you understood how big it was. You never looked past that game to the playoffs,” he said. “That was never the case. The rivalry of Cumberland, Woonsocket, that's what made it so big.”
Skurka had to watch from the sidelines his junior year after breaking his hand during a game with Bishop Hendricken at the beginning of the season.
“That year, it's probably one of the reasons I became a coach. I spent every day at practice with a cast on for four weeks,” he said. “I had the ability to sit back and watch and learn; to see what was going on from the sidelines. It really kind of gave me a passion for the game that you don't realize once it's taken away from you. I think that passion got stronger. I told myself I was going to make the best out of my senior year.”
The two coaches agree the rivalry was a little more intense before the turn of the century because both communities also played against each other in Pop Warner football.
“Now the pre-teens are not even in the same league,” Henderson stated.
The rivalry has simmered down somewhat over the years, but the game still ranks as one of the biggest of the year.
If not, the biggest.
“I think we are a little bit separated now than we were in the past, but we put an emphasis on the tradition here,” Skurka said. “This is our 50th year of football at the high school. Obviously this has been something that's been a part of Cumberland football since basically Cumberland football started. We have a pride night before the game every year where former players come back and talk to the players. We put an emphasis on this game. No matter what our records are we respect that they are going to go out and play hard and that's how we approach it.”
Added Henderson: “I always remember the coaches saying that the turkey tasted better after a victory.”
Cumberland will face a familiar opponent when it travels to Wood River Junction on Tuesday (7 p.m.) for its playoff contest with Chariho. The two teams also squared off in a league matchup back on Sept. 23 with the host Chargers (6-1) defeating the Clippers, 20-13.
Skurka feels his squad is prepared for the rematch, considering that its playing its best ball the final month of the season. But for obvious reasons, he is not taking the Chargers lightly.
“You can’t overlook anybody,” he said. “They are the No. 1 seed and we’re the No. 3 seed. We have been playing good football as of late. It’s one of those things where we have to get back on the bus, drive down to Chariho, take that long road trip one more time. We did it once earlier this year and we just came up a bit short of the goal line near the end of the game with three seconds to go. We feel like we got another shot. Second chances, you don’t get those often. Now we have ours and we are going to take advantage of it.