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Former Mercury sports editor Don Seeley passed away in June 2013 from a heart attack. For more than a decade Seeley wrote about local sports. Featured here are his columns that were previously printed in The Mercury.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Thanksgiving Day football lives on

This article was originally published in the Jan. 17, 2012, print edition of The Mercury.

Thanksgiving Day football is alive and well ... for another couple of years, perhaps longer.

For Owen J. Roberts and Pottstown, retaining their game – the area’s oldest Thanksgiving Day series – was a no-brainer. For Phoenixville and Spring-Ford, it took a little extra time and a whole lot of discussion about schedule commitments before officials from both schools agreed to continue their Thanksgiving Day series for at least two more years. The future of the third game, between Boyertown and Upper Perkiomen – which has been a fixture on the Thanksgiving Day card since the Bears returned to District 1 and became a member of the Pioneer Athletic Conference in 2002 – is still up in the air.

The area’s Thanksgiving football tradition appeared to be in serious jeopardy when a Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association proposal to shorten the season from 16 to 15 weeks passed – nearly unanimously – through its first and second readings. However, during the PIAA Board of Directors meeting the weekend of the state final football championships in Hershey last month, the third and final reading failed to pass.

Representatives from several districts were taken aback by “new interpretations” of the proposal. Some suggested the shorter-season issue go back to each district for more discussion. Others said enough was enough already, that the 2012 schedules had to be drawn up and finished by February, so it was time to vote and get through the third and final reading.

Pennsylvania Coaches Representative Ron Kanaskie of Danville moved to table the third reading, but his motion failed. District 3’s Sam Elias moved to vote on the third reading.

They did ... and the proposal failed.

The result drew mixed reactions from coaches, administrators and fans around the Pioneer Athletic Conference (as well as around the entire state).

First of all, the 15-week season would have created scheduling problems for some PAC-10 schools, or at least those attempting to prioritize their postseason ambitions and respective Thanksgiving Day traditions. Had the proposal passed, all schools, including schools that do not play on Thanksgiving – Methacton, Perkiomen Valley, Pope John Paul II and Pottsgrove – would have had to go with one scrimmage, one non-league game and nine consecutive league games, or two scrimmages and nine consecutive league games, to fulfill their commitment to the league and finish by the final weekend of October. That would be the deadline because playoffs begin the following weekend, or a weekend earlier than the current postseason format.

The shortened season, without Thanksgiving Day games on the schedule, would also have meant no potential conflicts if a school played up to or through Thanksgiving. There actually haven’t been any such conflicts for the PAC-10’s current Class AAAA schools – Boyertown, Methacton, Owen J. Roberts, Perkiomen Valley and Spring-Ford – because four of five schools that have qualified for the playoffs have never won a postseason game in the big-school bracket, or played beyond the second weekend of November.

However, there have been a number of conflicts for other PAC-10 member schools – specifically Class AAA Phoenixville and Pottsgrove, as well as former member St. Pius X, which competed in Class AA as well as Class A before closing its doors in 2010 and merging with Kennedy-Kenrick at the new Pope John Paul II High School in Upper Providence Township.

Pottsgrove and Pius moved their Thanksgiving game up a day on two occasions because of playoff games either that following day or Saturday. The two teams’ went with junior varsity lineups for their final Thanksgiving meeting in 2009 because both the Falcons and Lions had playoff games that weekend.

The latest conflict occurred last November, when Phoenixville – after winning its first two postseason games to advance to the District 1-AAA final (against Pottsgrove) – had to play rival Spring-Ford at home on Thanksgiving eve, or two days before the championship showdown with Pottsgrove.

Those supporting the shortened season and abandoning altogether the Thanksgiving Day games, as well as those supporting the still intact 16-week season and retaining the Thanksgiving Day games, all have valid arguments.

However, exactly what you hear depends on what sideline you may be standing on.

Finding someone from Pottstown and Owen J. Roberts willing to exchange their 52-year-old Thanksgiving Day rivalry for a shorter season and possible long playoff run would be difficult.

“As most know, our game is more than just a game to the people in our communities,” said Owen J. Roberts athletic director Dave Strock, who lined up for three of them as a former Wildcat back in the mid 60s. “It was good to know the (district representatives) throughout Pennsylvania were able to see the negative impact (the 15-week season) would have had on some programs, schools and communities.”

Pottstown athletic director Pat Connors wasn’t even aware there was a possible issue.

“The game is on our schedule (for 2012) like it always has been,” Connors explained recently. “We were aware of the (shortened-season) proposal, and if things had changed we would’ve dealt with them. But nothing’s really changed for us.”

OJR head coach Tom Barr was quite happy to hear the Trojans will be making their scheduled Thanksgiving morning visit to Bucktown next November.

“The schedule is staying status quo, so we’re happy we’re keeping the Thanksgiving game,” said Tom Barr, who played in three of the games as a Wildcat and has guided his team in the past 15 meetings with Pottstown. “I would like to continue the game. I believe there are a lot of members of the community who enjoy watching the game on those Thursday mornings, and I am one of them.

“I enjoy the tradition. Many players walk away with great memories of their last game on Thanksgiving Day. It is not your typical game.”

The future of the Boyertown-Upper Perkiomen game on Thanksgiving hasn’t yet been decided. Upper Perkiomen is currently in the process of finding a new head coach following the resignation of Keith Leamer. Nonetheless, Bears head coach Mark Scisly is hoping to see the Thanksgiving Day series continue.

“Thanksgiving is a great tradition and I hope we continue it,” said Scisly, who just completed his fourth season with the Bears. “Football is more important to Thanksgiving than turkey and cranberry sauce. As far as I know, the only way we will stop playing (on Thanksgiving) is if we have no one to play.

“I am just glad the PIAA decided not to change the schedule. Some people say the football season is too long. But if you really think about it, only eight (state final) teams are affected by the extra week. So, are we going to make a change because eight teams are affected? That doesn’t make sense to me.”

Last November, Phoenixville head coach Bill Furlong had to prepare his Phantoms for three games – the district semifinal against Academy Park, the PAC-10 season finale with Spring-Ford, and the district final against Pottsgrove – in a period of nine days.

Despite that unenviable challenge, Furlong still has an open mind about Thanksgiving Day football.

“I could go either way,” he said. “The fact I don’t have the final say makes me not really feel strongly either way, too. I know as a district we are in favor of keeping it, and I go along with that. There are many positives playing (on Thanksgiving). If other people involved felt differently, I wouldn’t mind (not playing), too.

“I try to make the best of things, so if you tell me I have to play I can find many good reasons to (play). On the other hand, if you told me the game was not going to happen (on Thanksgiving) I could see advantages to that, too.”

If anyone could empathize with Furlong and the challenge his Phantoms faced, it was Spring-Ford head coach Chad Brubaker.

“I did not envy the position Phoenixville was in,” Brubaker explained. “There is a reason football games are scheduled one week apart. It’s a physical game, and it’s an understatement to say I wouldn’t be completely comfortable with our kids playing Wednesday and then again on Friday or Saturday.

“And that’s not even taking into consideration putting together and implementing a game plan. How do you prepare for a district championship game in two days? How do you compete with two district playoff-caliber teams in a matter of days? We hand out a 10-page game plan for each game with new plays, looks, stunts, etc. Now you go into the most important game of the year and have the least time to prepare?”

All good points.
And all good points about an imposing challenge that former St. Pius coaches Dave Bodolus and George Parkinson as well as Pottsgrove head coach Rick Pennypacker had to deal with in the past, like Furlong had to deal with back in November.

“It’s unfortunate that any of us are in this situation,” said an area coach, who asked to remain anonymous. “A lot of us (coaches) have played in a Thanksgiving game. We know how big a game, how big an event, it is. The idea of our football season ending in October, not playing football in November ... I don’t know how well that will go over in the community. It’s really a delicate issue.”

An issue that’s settled, but only settled for the time being.



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