Greenfield-Turners showdown should be a barn-burner

  • Turners Falls running back Ryan Campbell can make things happen. Recorder file photo/Paul Franz

  • Turners Falls QB Kyle Dodge has come on strong over the second half of the season. Recorder file photo/Paul Franz

  • Turners Falls running back Jaden Whiting can make things happen. Recorder file photo/Paul Franz

  • Owen Phelps (10) and RJ Byrd (22) are the two straws that stir the drink for Greenfield High School entering today’s Turkey Day showdown at the Bourdeau Fields Complex in the Powertown. RECORDER FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Greenfield running back RJ Byrd is the chugging locomotive that drives the Green Wave offense. He’ll be the target of the host Turners Falls defense today in Turkey Day football action at the Bourdeau Fields Complex in the Powertown. Recorder file photo/Paul Franz

  • Green Wave QB Owen Phelps is a third-generation family member playing in today’s Turkey Day football game in Turners Falls. In fact, his father and grandfather are former game MVPs. Recorder file photo/Paul Franz

Recorder Staff
Wednesday, November 22, 2017

It has all the makings of another classic in a long-standing Thanksgiving rivalry.

A pair of six-win teams will collide this morning at the Bourdeau Fields Complex in Turners Falls when Greenfield High School meets Turners Falls High School at 10:30 a.m. in the 91st meeting between the teams, the longest continuous running Turkey Day rivalry in the western Massachusetts.

Greenfield (6-3) leads the all-time series 59-23-8, but it’s been all Turners Falls (6-4) in recent history as the Powertown comes into the game with a once-unimaginable six-game Turkey Day winning streak. Turners Falls had never before won more than two straight games in series history. The current streak began in 2011 in the Powertown when TJ Meyer’s kick doinked off the crossbar and went through as the deciding point in Turners Falls’ 7-6 victory.

No matter the outcome, this game has the potential to be another close one. Early in the season, it appeared that the Green Wave was going to be decided favorites, but late-season Turners success has many people unsure of the outcome. Greenfield did end Turners’ seven-game series winning streak (including a regular-season win last year) in September, but Turners Falls owns the six-game holiday winning streak. During Turners’ current streak, four of the six games have been decided by a touchdown or less. This game should be no different.

“I’ve said it before and I mean it: When you are a kid and you get to suit up for Turners, this is the game you want to play all year,” Turners coach Chris Lapointe said. “Greenfield is one of the best teams we’ve faced this year. We want to go out on a strong note. Ultimately, this is our Super Bowl.”

The game will be broadcast on WPVQ-FM, 95.3, with Jeff Tirrell and Shawn Hubert at the mic as they wrap up their 27th season in the broadcast booth.

History channeled

The 91-year Turkey Day streak makes this game the longest continuous Turkey Day matchup in WMass dating back to 1927. The oldest rivalry in the state is between Needham and Wellesley high schools, which first met in 1882. Although the Mahar-Athol WMass rivalry began earlier (1894), it took a break at several points early on, and Athol actually played Gardner for eight games from 1928 through 1936. Athol and Mahar have played every year since 1953.

The first WMass Turkey Day game was between the now-defunct St. Joseph’s Central High School and Pittsfield High School and took place in 1920. Five years later, Athol and Orange began playing on Turkey Day, but that lasted just three years when Athol began playing Gardner. Out of 292 teams across the state, 240 will play today (or Wednesday night), making for 120 Thanksgiving games.

Greenfield and Turners first played in 1907, when they played twice. The first meeting came on Oct. 29 and Greenfield won by a 30-0 score. Then the teams met again on Nov. 13 and Greenfield won 18-0.

The first Turkey Day game in 1927 was also for the WMass title, as Greenfield came in at 6-1-1 compared to Turners’ 5-0-2. Greenfield won 13-0 in front of 2,500 fans. Attendance figures continued to increase in the pre-TV era. The largest crowd was 10,000 in 1941.

Season reviews

Greenfield opened the season on a three-game winning streak, included a pivotal win over Frontier, and the team had early-season postseason aspirations. Things changed when the Wave was knocked off in Week 4, then suffered two more losses, ending the Wave’s postseason hopes.

“I wish I could say what happened in October. I take partial blame for that, because as coaches, we need to get our kids ready every game and we didn’t do a very good job,” Green Wave coach Mike Kuchieski said.

Greenfield turned its season around and finished on a high note, winning its final three games to bring a three-game winning streak into today’s game.

Turners Falls has also turned things around. After a 1-2 start, the Powertown has won five of seven and comes into today on a four-game winning streak.

“Turners Falls has gotten much better every single game and that is coaching,” Kuchieski lauded. “Coach Lapointe has really coached those kids up. Everything that happened in September and October doesn’t matter. If we treat them like we walked all over them, we are going to have a long day (today).”

High-flying Byrd

RJ Byrd is primed to win the area rushing title following another dominant year.

The Green Wave junior burst onto the varsity scene as a sophomore with a 1,000-yard rushing season last fall, but this fall he has been even better and enters today’s game with an area-leading 1,420 yards and 14 touchdowns.

“Your sophomore-to-junior year is a big step in anybody’s high school career; it’s the puberty of a football player, and it really shows what you are going to be,” Kuchieski said. “RJ stepped up and is running hard and getting north and south, where he once wanted to be a east-west guy. It also helps that he has a pretty nice offensive in front of him. You can’t put it all on RJ because our line has done a great job as well.”

Byrd has done all his damage in just eight games, missing one due to injury. He has eclipsed 100 yards in every game except one (95 against Frontier), and he has gone for more than 200 yards three times, including 241 yards and two touchdowns against Turners.

“RJ is one of the best backs in the league,” Lapointe said. “We’ve got to limit his big plays. We let up a ton of third and shorts in that first game, and that was big.”

As Kuchieski mentioned, the Green Wave line has been stout and opened up the holes for Byrd to run through. Marty Brown, Laz Santiago, Colby Avery, Cam Lackey, Ryan Duclos and Andry Pribyshchuk make it happen.

The Green Wave also got a boost last game when fullback Nate Haselton returned from an injury. The Wave also has another weapon Turners did not see the first time around. Colin Cloutier moved from the offensive line to the backfield when Byrd was injured three games ago and he responded with a 213-yard performance. He followed that up with a 70-yard performance after Byrd returned, and could be a factor in today’s game.

Dodge Charger

Turners Falls rides a four-game winning streak into today’s game and one big reason for the success has been the emergence of junior QB Kyle Dodge who has become the area’s top passer over the past seven weeks. Dodge took over the starting role this season, following the graduation of three-year starter Tionne Brown, and endured a shaky start. In his first three games, Dodge went 3-for-17 overall, completing just one pass in each game. He threw for a total of 38 yards in that span and had one interception and no touchdowns.

Things began to improve during a Week 4 game against McCann Tech, when Dodge doubled his season output with three completions on 12 attempts for 100 yards and a pair of scores. Since then, Dodge has been on fire, throwing for over 100 yards in each of the five games after McCann. He had that string broken in his last game against Pioneer when he passed for just 89 yards, but that came on a very cold and windy day. In the past seven games, Dodge has thrown for 1,103 yards and sits at 1,141 on the season.

More importantly than the yardage, Dodge also saw his completion percentage increase dramatically. Even after the McCann game (when he completed just 25 percent of his throws), Dodge was 6-for-29 on the season for a 21 percent completion rate. In the six games since, Dodge has completed 35 percent or more of his passes five times, and completed over 70 percent three times. He is 43-for-87 (49 percent) since the first four games of the season, and perhaps most impressively, he has thrown 12 touchdowns against one interception.

It’s the kind of transformation Turners coach Chris Lapointe was hoping for, and he said it’s come about as the result of hard work.

“We worked on Kyle’s throwing technique and it took a little bit to grasp because it’s muscle memory,” Lapointe explained. “He played really well up at McCann and he’s grown from there. Really, his technique and form have allowed him to throw a better ball and get the ball to his athletes.”

Rebuilt offense

Another explanation for Turners’ slow offensive start was that Dodge was not the only newcomer. Turners lost all of its starting skill players from a year ago and also had a new line.

Dodge has built trust in several receivers, and those options have helped make him effective. Three players enter today’s game with more than 10 catches for Turners, including team-leader Jaden Whiting (17 catches for 356 yards and five touchdowns). Andy Craver leads the Powertown in receiving yardage with 396, that coming on 12 catches, and he is tied with Whiting for the team lead in TD pass receptions with five. Ryan Campbell has transitioned nicely from the soccer pitch to the football field and continues to be more productive. He has 11 catches for 202 yards and a touchdown. Eight of his receptions have come over the past three games.

“It’s not one guy, but multiple guys who really do complement each other,” Lapointe said. “They can catch and run.”

The Turners Falls backfield was another place that needed rebuilding after losing two-time 1,000-yard rusher Quinn Doyle and others from a year ago. Marcus Sanders was expected to be a big part of the offense and was just that early in the season. But he has since left the team for personal reasons. At the time, Turners Falls was using a three-back system, which included Jon Torres and John Driscoll, but the team has not missed a beat. Torres leads with 704 yards on 155 carries and six touchdowns but was injured in the Pioneer game and is questionable today. Driscoll is the fullback with 351 yards and two touchdowns. After Driscoll went down early against the Panthers, Torres took over for his biggest rushing day with 119 yards.

Turners actually has four players with 100-yard rushing games this season, the most of any area school, as Whiting went for 100 yards last time out as well and gives the team another option. Campbell is another player to keep an eye on out of the backfield.

All that yardage begins with a Turners offensive line that once again gets the job done despite its size. The Turners starting line is Dom Carme (left tackle), Jakob Wilson (left guard), Jack Putala (center), Tyler Lavin (right guard) and Hayden Patenaude (right tackle).

“They are undersized and we have a couple kids who have never played line before but were willing to help the team out,” Lapointe said. “They’ve really worked on technique and taken pride in getting points on the board. With only six or seven linemen on the team, it’s difficult to practice, but they’ve challenged themselves and made themselves better.”

Driscoll and Patenaude are the lone seniors on the team.

Phelps connection

Greenfield quarterback Owen Phelps is a third-generation member of the Green Wave and his grandfather Bill Phelps and father Kyle Phelps are former Turkey Day MVPs. The eldest Phelps won the 1964 WMass scoring title as a running back for the Wave and won the MVP in the Turkey Day game, while Kyle Phelps won the MVP in 1988 as a split end and had a successful three-year varsity career that included helping the team reach two Super Bowls.

Owen saw some action last year as a defensive back but makes his debut as quarterback and has the potential for a big game. The junior has completed 44-of-78 passes for 643 yards, passing for eight touchdowns and six interceptions. In Greenfield’s win over Frontier, Phelps completed 10-of-16 passes for 175 yards with three touchdowns and one pick for his best single-game performance.

“Owen takes care of the ball and makes some decisions that are safe. When he makes a wrong decision, he pays for it and he learns,” Kuchieski said.

The Wave receiving corps has two players with over 10 receptions in Danny Vega and Dionn Casanova. Vega leads the team with 15 catches for 269 yards and five touchdowns, while Casanova has 11 receptions for 176 yards and three scores.

“I think it’s going to be a really good game,” Kuchieski concluded. “There’s a reason why you play on Turkey Day. There’s tradition. We are trying to get the kids to understand that tradition. The game can leave a lasting memory for these players.”