Is it payback time for visiting Raiders?

  • The Mahar defense will keep an eye on Athol running back Mason Barrieau today. Recorder file photo/Paul Franz

  • Mahar junior 1,000-yard running back Jon Gariepy has been prime-time player since coming to Orange from Narragansett. He’ll be on the Athol radar this morning in Orange for the schools’ annual Turkey Day clash. Recorder file photo/Paul Franz

  • Athol QB Keegan Lutz (right) and running back Robbie Nelson will be wearing bulls-eyes today against the Mahar defense. RECORDER file photo/DAN LITTLE

  • Mahar QB Sam Paul will lead the Senators into his fourth Turkey Day game still looking for his first rivalry win. RECORDER file photo/DAN LITTLE

  • Mahar 5 Charlie Barnes comes down with an interception tipped by GHS 5 Jacob Sak. 7 is Sam Paul. September 8, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Recorder Staff
Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The oldest Thanksgiving rivalry in the Commonwealth is expected to add another exciting chapter to its storied history this morning in Orange.

Athol High School (4-6) makes the 7.5-mile trek west to play familiar foe Mahar Regional School (4-5) at 10 a.m. in a game that has all the makings of a classic.

Athol leads the all-time Thanksgiving series, 50-30-1, and the Red Raiders have won three straight holiday classics. That includes last year’s decisive 48-9 victory. The series dates back to 1894, when Orange captured an 18-4 win in the rivalry’s first clash.

“It’s fantastic,” said Mahar head coach Chris Bailey. “I tell the kids all the time that when I was (a player) at Frontier, I didn’t have a Thanksgiving game because they hadn’t started up the (Thanksgiving Eve) series (with Mohawk) yet. So we looked at Turners and Greenfield as well as Athol and Mahar and we were jealous. When I started working (at Mahar), to be a part of it was awesome. Last year was my first time as head coach and this year I make sure to tell them how special it is to me. I can’t imagine what it’s like to grow up and get to play in this rivalry.”

Athol head coach Bill LaRose said the Thanksgiving game brings out the best in both teams.

“It’s a storied rivalry with folklore everywhere,” he offered. “It means a lot to the program. If you win this game, whatever side of the river you live on, that’s big. Both teams always play their best football on Turkey Day.”

Although Athol has won three straight, Mahar has actually won the most recent meeting between the two teams. The Senators captured the regular-season game on Sept. 22, when Jon Gariepy returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown in the waning minutes to give Mahar a thrilling 18-16 win.

Bailey admitted that while a lot has changed for both teams since then, getting a win for confidence purposes is never a bad thing.

“You’re not gonna put a whole lot of weight on that win, but I will say that confidence is such a big thing with these kids,” the Mahar coach said. “They will walk in (today) just a little more confident because they have beaten them before. If you come in losing that game, there’s just that shadow of a doubt extra.”

Paul’s last hurrah

This morning’s game marks the fourth and final Turkey Day start for senior Mahar quarterback Sam Paul. The dynamic double-threat QB certainly doesn’t lack motivation. He’s yet to get a win on the fourth Thursday in November, settling for an 0-3 holiday mark against the Red Raiders.

“Sam’s really focused; he’s a seasoned veteran now,” Bailey lauded. “He’s done this since his freshman year. But I also think he has the best supporting cast that he’s had since his freshman year.

“It’s no secret everything we do goes through him,” he continued. “He’s the decision-maker. But when he’s got the other guys around him to make plays, he’s that much better.”

Paul has amassed 1,254 yards of total offense this year, totaling 15 touchdowns. He has just three interceptions all season, and he’s shown the ability to make big plays with his arm and legs.

“It’s no secret that it starts and ends with Sam Paul,” said LaRose of Mahar’s offense. “He runs a nice read-option, throws the ball very nicely. You have to contain Sam first and foremost.”

Paul has thrown a touchdown pass in each of his three Thanksgiving Day starts, including being thrust into the role as a freshman in the a 14-6 2014 loss. Paul took over the job late in the season due to an injury to senior Drew Patria, and the freshman impressed LaRose with his play.

“He’s the real deal and I’ve been saying that since he was a freshman,” the Athol coach explained. “That (2014 game) was a baptism by fire for him against us. He took hit after hit and kept getting back up. He’s been nothing but a leader for them for four years.”

Paul has several capable targets in the passing game, led by big tight end Hugo Frost, who has a team-high 255 yards and three receiving touchdowns. Jordan Desrosiers has caught two TDs this year, while Charlie Barnes also has a receiving touchdown. Ryan Donaldson has a team-high 10 catches.

Battle of bruising backs

The running-back matchup is always interesting to watch on Turkey Day, and this year’s battle will be no different.

Athol’s main ballcarrier is senior fullback Robbie Nelson, who has an outside shot at reaching the 1,000-yard mark for the season today. Nelson comes in with 806 yards to go with an impressive 14 touchdowns. Add in the fact he’s amassed a team-high 12 receptions, and Nelson will certainly be a focal point for the Mahar defense.

“For the better part of two years he’s been a quiet leader for us,” said LaRose of Nelson. “He doesn’t say much, just does his talking between the lines. The offensive line takes pride in opening holes for him and our backfield.”

Bailey is well aware that Nelson is going to see plenty of the pigskin this morning.

“It all goes through Nelson. He’s gonna get his 25 carries a game,” Bailey offered. “When he’s pounding the football successfully, why would you give it anywhere else? They’re not flashy by any means, but that’s not Athol football. They’ll line up and smash you in the mouth. We’re very familiar with that. It’s a matter of us lining up and digging in and stopping them.”

Mason Barrieau adds an outside threat to an Athol rushing attack that has really gotten things going since opening the season 0-4. Since then, the Red Raiders have won four of six games.

“In the old Wing-T offense they run, it’ll traditionally attack you in three spots, so you have to stay home and read your keys,” Bailey said. “You have to pay attention and stay home because, when they start to see you overplaying things, they’ll exploit you.”

Mahar junior tailback Jon Gariepy, he of the game-winning kickoff return in the regular-season meeting, reached the 1,000-yard mark in the team’s last win over Monument Mountain Regional High School. After transferring from Narragansett Regional High School before his sophomore year, Gariepy has turned into a dependable featured back, according to Bailey.

“I took him into the gym in the beginning of the season and pointed up to the 1,000-yard banner hanging there,” explained Bailey. “I told him, ‘You should be up here twice before all is said and done.’ Last year as a sophomore, he had one of those baptism-by-fire seasons. He learned and took some hits along the way. He knew what to expect coming into this year. He’s another player who’s gotten stronger as the year progressed. He’s really learned to read his blocks.”

While Paul is someone to watch on every snap, Gariepy is another focal point of the Athol defense.

“Garipey is obviously a threat. He’s a 1,000-yard rusher, so you’ve gotta keep your eyes on him,” LaRose admitted. “Our goal is to shut those two guys down. They’re offensive threats whenever they touch the ball.”

Lutz makes holiday debut

While Paul is the established veteran of Thanksgiving games under center, Athol freshman quarterback Keegan Lutz will make his very-first Turkey Day start this morning.

The rookie has done a nice job in his first season after taking over the job due to an injury, and most importantly, he’s made the most of his opportunities. Lutz has four passing touchdowns, three of them coming on lone completions of the game.

“Keegan was thrown into a difficult situation, being a freshman,” said LaRose. “He took his lumps early. It was part of our growing pains early. With the exception of the Frontier game, I wouldn’t consider he’s had a bad game. He rebounded nicely against Belchertown and Amherst. Our goal is to make sure not to try and do too much. He can run the ball, that gives us a nice option. He has to be calm and not let the moment get too big for him (today).”

While Lutz isn’t going to throw the ball 20 times, Bailey said the timeliness of his passing attempts is what makes the Athol offense dangerous.

“They’re gonna lull you to sleep and take a shot when we least expect it,” explained Bailey. “In this league, most teams are run-first, so that’s where you focus your defense. But when you do that, you leave yourself susceptible to a surprise pass. The ball doesn’t have to be thrown perfectly if the guys is wide open.”

Seasons on the brink

After winning just one game a year ago, it’s been a much-improved season for Mahar. The Senators have been competitive while picking up victories over Athol, Turners Falls High School, Ludlow High School and Monument Mountain. They enter today as winners of two straight. A win today would pull Mahar to .500.

“It wasn’t where we wanted to be, obviously, but we’ve improved from last year,” said Bailey. “Athol’s improved as well. To tell you the truth, every year you throw out the records when these two teams play. There’s been plenty of years where it’s supposed to be a rout either way and then it comes down to the final seconds. I don’t expect any different this year. It’s gonna come down to a couple plays.”

Undermanned early in the season, Athol limped to an 0-4 start in what was expected to be an Intercounty League North-contending team this fall. Since then, however, the Raiders have beaten Mohawk Trail Regional High School, Greenfield High School, Belchertown High School and Amherst Regional High School to get to 4-6 overall. They’ve also won two in a row entering today.

“The biggest improvement has been consistency,” explained LaRose. “For most of those games, we had a full lineup. The first four, we were undermanned. But our kids never quit during the tough times. They kept working hard and gelled together throughout.”

Bailey said that since his team is spread out throughout the grades, he’s going to rely on his experienced seniors to set the tone today.

“I’ve said all year long that it’s an interesting group,” he began. “We have eight to 10 seniors who have all played on Thanksgiving before and are experienced. Out of a roster of about 40 to start, I had like 26 first-year players. You’re gonna see seniors taking some of these guys under their wings for the first couple of plays. You may see the first-play jitters from some of them, part of that is playing at 10 o’clock in the morning. But once they make that first hit or first play, they’ll figure it out.”