H.S. Football: Athol-Mahar set to reignite Thanksgiving rivalry after year away

  • Athol running back Dilan Fountain (34) gets past Mahar safety Morgan Softic (11) for a touchdown run during action earlier this season in Orange. The two rivals are set to reignite their Thanksgiving Day rivalry on Thursday morning at O’Brien Field in Athol. PHOTO BY DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 11/23/2021 8:06:47 PM

For the citizens of the North Quabbin area, Thanksgiving 2020 certainly didn’t have had the same energy to it.

Due to COVID-19, last year marked the first time the Athol and Mahar football teams didn’t get together for their annual Thanksgiving Day showdown since 1953. 

Luckily it was just a one-year hiatus, as the Bears and Senators will square off Thanksgiving morning at 10 a.m. at O’Brien Field in Athol, continuing one of the longest rivalries in Massachusetts football.

“I live about a mile from the field so last year on Thanksgiving I went over, sat in the press box and took a picture,” Bears coach Bill LaRose said. “It was weird not playing Mahar on Thanksgiving. Our kids are excited and ready to go on Thursday. I’ve been doing this for eight years. The coaches, the kids, the fans, the moms, the dads, everyone loves Turkey Day. It’s a tradition.” 

“When I played at Frontier, we didn’t play on Thanksgiving so I never got to participate in a Thanksgiving game,” Mahar coach Chris Bailey added. “I always tell the kids that I couldn’t do it so make sure to make the most of it because it’s special. We were worried a few years back that playing in the regular season as well would make the game lose it’s luster, but that hasn’t been the case at all.”

Mahar (2-8) has had its way with Athol (3-7) the last two Turkey Day games, but if the regular season is any indication of how Thursday’s game will play out, the Bears have a great shot at snapping its two-game Thanksgiving skid. 

Athol running back Dilan Fountain carried the rock just six times but still managed to gain 217 yards while finding the end zone four times as the Bears cruised to a 42-8 victory at the Woodward Complex on Oct. 8.

The Senators are using that loss as added motivation.

“You have your chance to get back at them,” Bailey said of his message. “This is the only team you get another shot at. All the other teams who beat you during the season, you don’t see them again so make the most of it. Nobody cares who won in the regular season, they care about who won on Thanksgiving.”

Athol’s seniors are seeking their first Turkey Day win against Mahar, though LaRose is trying to keep his squad focused on the task at hand. 

“The thing you have to worry about is not making it a track game,” LaRose said. “You want to come in, do your job and play from start-to-finish. I’ve been on both sides of the fence where they’ve beaten us in the regular season and where we beat them. You just have to stay focused on the task and not get caught up in the past.”

The win was the second in a row for Athol over the Senators. While they didn't meet on Turkey Day in 2020, the two schools got together for a game during the Fall II season, which took place in the spring. 

Both teams traded touchdowns throughout that game before Bears quarterback Caleb Cox connected with Noah Pottinger for a touchdown pass with 37 seconds left on the clock that put Athol up, 26-22. 

Mahar quarterback Noaha Chabot then tossed a Hail Mary to Eli Spencer, who hauled it in but was stopped at the one-yard-line as time expired as the Bears won in one of the best Recorder-area games of the Fall II season. 

Fans should be hoping for a repeat of that performance on Thursday. 

“It always feels like nothing stays in the playbook when we play Athol,” Bailey said. “We’re going to try to do the things we’ve done all year but there’s always a few wrinkles thrown in. Both teams know each other well so it's going to come down to execution. We have to make sure the kids are in the right spots.”

The Thanksgiving series, which dates back to 1894 — the first time the two schools got together for a game — should hold extra meaning after not playing a season ago. 

Athol enters coming off a 34-0 win against Smith Vocational in its last game, and the program played Frontier tough the week prior.

LaRose is prepared to see just about anything from the Senators on Thursday, knowing they won't get the same looks they got in the last meeting.

“We started practice last Wednesday,” LaRose said. “We kept it low key, just focused on doing our jobs and doing the little things right. You throw out the records in this one. Mahar has nothing to lose. We could see anything from the spread to the single wing. We’re going to see some gadget plays and some new looks on defense so we’ll have to be prepared for anything.” 

Mahar on the other hand had as tough of a schedule as possible to close out the season with games against the top three teams in the Intercounty North Division: Ware, Greenfield and Palmer. All three played in the MIAA state tournament.

The Senators took their first non-playoff game in overtime against Smith Voke, 14-12, before falling to Monument Mountain. Mahar is hoping to get a win and gain some momentum heading into the offseason. 

“Morale wasn’t as high as it could have been toward the end of the season with that tough stretch,” Bailey said. “None of that matters this week. We have a shot to win so they're excited. We were struggling to get healthy bodies later in the year but we’re back to being healthy. We’re looking to build for the next few years and a win would really give this young team something to build on.” 


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