Thanksgiving football: Athol, Mahar set for another edition of oldest rivalry in western Massachusetts
|Published: 11-22-2023 1:10 PM
A tradition that began in 1894, the 82nd Thanksgiving meeting between Athol and Mahar on Thursday will feature two programs on the rise.
The Bears are coming off one of their best seasons in recent memory, going 6-4 and reaching the MIAA Div. 8 playoffs as the No. 14 seed. It was the jump head coach Josh Talbot was hoping for in his second year leading the team, and he’s seen improvement on both sides of the ball.
All that success and positive momentum gained will mean little to Athol if the Senators can go to O’Brien Field and end the Bears’ season on a sour note, just as they did last year when Mahar came away with a 12-0 victory at the Woodward Complex.
“We’ve put in a lot of work this season,” Talbot said. “It didn’t stop at the end of last season. The kids have been working since Memorial Day, put in a lot of work over the summer and you can tell there’s been a lot of work put in. You’d hate to see if all go for nothing with a loss on Thanksgiving.
“This group has a chance to cap this season as one of the most successful teams of the 2000s at Athol,” he continued. “It would be a horrible way to go out with a loss. I’m confident our guys will want to end this thing the right way with a loud performance on Thanksgiving and etch their place as one of the best teams here in the last 25 years.”
The jump Athol has made in year two is one the Senators (4-6) are hoping to replicate.
Percy Eady is rounding out his first season leading Mahar and has seen his squad grow and progressively improve throughout the season. Pulling out a win over the Bears would only boost the confidence within the program heading into 2024.
“We’re super excited for this game,” Eady said. “You can hear the entire area talking about it. It’s definitely been a positive first year for us. The thing I love about being a coach is uncovering the guys who aren’t the standouts on day one and finding their hidden talent. We’ve done a good job of finding those kids who weren’t immediately comfortable in our system and working with them to the point where they’re in position and making plays. We wish we had a couple more wins but we’ve had plenty of success internally this year.”
As has been the case since the realignment of leagues in 2016, this won't be the first time Athol and Mahar are squaring off this season.
The two rivals played on Oct. 20 in Orange, a game the Bears came out victorious, 26-16, though it was closer than the score might indicate.
“They were a little bit more dangerous than we anticipated going in,” Talbot said. “The first time around they controlled the trenches in the first half. We made an adjustment and got some of that momentum back in the second half. Looking back at it we went up early but they really controlled the first half. They were impressive and we certainly won't take them for granted.”
The loss was especially hurtful for the Senators, which lost leading rusher Ronnie Stone to a season-ending injury. Still, Eady saw positives in the game he said he hopes his team can build off of the second time around.
“The thing I took away from our first game against Athol was that when we dial in, good things happen,” Eady said. “It was unfortunate to lose a player like Ronnie Stone. The team really did get behind him after which was a cool thing to see. They wanted to do it for Ronnie. I thought one of our biggest wins in that game was our offensive line play. That was one of the better games they’ve played. The key to victory in this game will be continued success on the offensive line, putting together two good halves of football, stopping the run and eliminating mistakes.”
With the amount of weapons at their disposal, stopping the Athol offense is easier said than done.
Junior Aidan Melanson has been a weapon with his arm, throwing for 1,044 yards and 14 touchdowns this year. It helps when he has weapons like Raydin Sousa and Aaron Ouellet to throw to, Sousa sitting at 493 yards and four touchdowns while Ouellet has 368 yards and seven touchdowns on the season.
Senior Dom Curtis splits time under center with Melanson and is a true dual threat, rushing for 385 yards and six touchdowns while adding 384 yards and three scores through the air. Junior Sawyer Lefsyk is a problem to deal with in the backfield, running for 1,015 yards and six touchdowns.
With a healthy offensive line, the Athol offense has been able to thrive this season, going from 2,100 yards of offense in 2022 to breaking the 3,000 yard mark this fall.
“To have 1,000 extra yards going into Thanksgiving is huge,” Talbot said. “We struggled with that last year and I admittedly struggled to adjust as a first year head coach. It’s definitely something we’ve gotten better with. We have a 1,000 yard passer, a 1,000 yard rusher, we might have a couple 500 yard receivers, a second quarterback with a chance to go over 1,000 all-purpose yards... we’ve done a really good job on offense.”
With its offense clicking, the Bears defense has been a tough group to move the ball on all season.
As a team Athol has 42 tackles for loss, led by Logan McGrath (10 TFL, four sacks), Hayden Barrieau (seven TFL, four sacks, two interceptions) and RJ Young (six TFL). Ouellet leads the team with three interceptions. In its 10 games, the Bears have allowed just 15.3 points per game.
In a rivalry game though, stats and records can be thrown out the window, something Talbot is preaching to his team.
“You can never take a rivalry game lightly,” Talbot said. “Look at NFL division games; anything can happen in those. It’s more so in high school where emotions take over and wild things happen. I was on the Athol team in 1999 where we were big underdogs and were able to upset Mahar. I’ve seen it happen through the years. We’re a very spirited, emotional football team. I want to see us come out with that type of energy that we play with. We’ve gotten a lot better since the last time we played them and I want to see that brand of football.”
Don’t expect the Bears to be anything but confident going in. Athol has always been a confident group, but seeing the results on the field has only strengthened its belief.
“This group has always been incredibly confident,” Talbot said. “I told them in the preseason this group thinks they’re one of the best teams around and anything less than that would be on me. What has happened over the last month is that the confidence is real now. It’s more earned. There’s less panic when things don’t go our way. They believe in the guy next to them that they’ll rise to the occasion. Until you have that success, it’s just confidence. Once that starts happening, it’s a different level of faith and swagger.”
Mahar opened its season winning three of its first five games. It has backslid since then, dropping four of five heading into Turkey Day. It’s been two weeks since the Sens suited up, a 35-20 loss to Ludlow in a non-playoff contest, which has allowed Eady focus in on things his team needs to improve on.
“We’ve been putting in a lot of work,” Eady said. “This last week we spent a lot of time addressing things we weren’t as tight on in the Ludlow game. We’ve gone back and reviewed some of the ways that Athol attacked us in the last game. It’s been helpful.”
Morgan Softic has led the Mahar offense under center all season. Stone had been a force at running back prior to his injury while Jayden Delgado and Sean Ramos are weapons Softic has had to work with all season as pass catchers.
Seniors David Vitello, Noah Bailey, Owen Carl and Sayyid Roberts have each contributed and helped set the culture in Eady’s first year.
“I love my senior class,” Eady said. “Those four seniors have busted their butt for me and this team. We want to send them out on a high note.
“We have a lot of athletes,” Eady added. “With no Pop Warner in the area some of them have limited reps which is not the worst thing because we’re not un-teaching bad habits. We can teach what we’ll be doing moving forward. Watching these kids come out of their shell, show their athleticism and authentic selves has been a great thing.”
Eady noted the challenges that go with preparing for Athol’s offense, and said that he and his staff have done what they can to best prepare the Sens for what they’ll be facing on Thursday.
“They're a challenge to prepare for,” Eady said. “The unique thing about our defense is if you’re playing our defense and you recognize your keys, it’ll bring you to the impact point. We’ve tried to break down their offense and look for impact points where the blocking sets up, where the ball goes, where the QB is looking. We just have to make sure to protect those impact points.”
As is always the case, Thanksgiving offers a way to end the season on a high note. No matter the result, Eady said he’s seen so much growth and positivity within his program that bodes well for its future.
“The easy answer is to grab a win,” Eady said when asked what he hopes to see on Thursday. “At the end of the day, watching our team become a true family has been incredible where our staff didn’t have a previous relationship with them. Being a coach of a school team, you want to see them learning the game at a different level and they’ve done that.
“Mahar had some success in the early 2000s but not much of late,” Eady said. “Any time you take over a program you want to be able to elevate it and not take a step backward. The thing that surprised me is how well my team and my staff have gelled. The relationship between the players and the coaches has been enlightening for me.”
With both programs on the upswing, it’s should be a positive for both teams.
“I talked to Percy before the first game we played and told him it’s a process,” Talbot said. “They’ve laid a good foundation for future success. We certainly want them to be successful. We can’t get where we want to be without the teams in our community pushing us. Glad to see they’ve played some pretty good football this year. It's a committed coaching staff over there.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 10 a.m. at O’Brien Field.