It is time for Thanksgiving. It is time for the 59th renewal of the annual Battle for the Bell. And it is time to throw the records out the window.
Bristol Central comes into Thursday’s game with a 6-3 record. It has won four in a row and has put up 159 points in that stretch.
The Rams have a quarterback who has run for over 1,000 yards and 26 touchdowns in nine games. They have an outside chance to claim another piece of a CCC divisional championship. They have taken home the bell the last two years. And they are playing an opponent that has won only two games this season.
But none of that matters as they prepare to renew what has become one of the state’s most venerable Thanksgiving morning traditions.
The annals of the Battle for the Bell are strewn with games where the team with the better record went home disappointed. There have been plenty of championships lost, playoff berths denied and overwhelming favorites humbled at Muzzy Field over the years.
As Bristol Central has prepared to return to their Muzzy Field home one last time, they have worked hard to avoid the pitfalls of complacency and to look beyond the records to focus on the task at hand.
“Throw out the records. It’s a worn cliché, but in his case it’s definitely true,” said Central coach Jeff Papazian. “We know that we are going to have our hands full with Bristol Eastern.”
“What stands out first and foremost about Bristol Eastern,” Papazian added, “is the tremendous improvement they have shown over last season. They have made huge strides from the team that we faced last year. And from week one to now in this season they are a much better team and right now they are playing their best football of the season.”
“They’ve had three or four games his season when they were right there,” Papazian added, “and with a break or two they could easily have three of four more wins. Their kids play hard every week and it’s a credit to A.J. [Julius] for keeping them focused. They are a well coached and disciplined team.”
The Rams will go after the Eastern defense with a running attack that has dominated opponents since the bye week.
Quarterback Dathan Hickey surpassed the 1,000 yard rushing mark in the win over East Catholic in week nine. He has rushed for 1,069 yards on 171 carries. He has scored 26 touchdowns on the season, putting him in fourth place all time on the Bristol Central all time single season scoring list behind Tim Washington (twice) and Karl Hall.
Hickey’s six-touchdown night against East Catholic moved him past Aaron Hernandez and D.J. Hernandez.
Hickey’s touchdowns have come in all three phases of the game. Besides rushing for over 20 scores, he has kickoff and punt returns for touchdowns and last week had a 70-yard return of an interception for a score. He is a multiple threat who can score from anywhere on the field.
He will be supported in the backfield by juniors Darrell Payton and Justus Fitzpatrick, who return to the lineup after being sidelined for the East Catholic game.
Payton has had three 100-yard rushing games this season and has rushed for 630 yards and six touchdowns for the year.
Fitzpatrick has become a third option in the backfield for the Rams in recent weeks and is the team’s leading receiver with 20 catches for 242 yards to go along with 292 rushing yards. He also has a 99-yard pick six to his credit as a defensive back.
The Rams will not pass the ball unless they have to. Central did not complete a pass in either of the last two games and had only one attempt in each. But Hickey has thrown for 485 yards and three touchdowns on the year with speedster Nigel West the big play threat and junior Nate Rosa a big target who could do some damage if the Lancers give him space.
Defensively the Rams will need to focus on Eastern quarterback Justin Marshall and his favorite target, Jaden Laprise, who has the ability to break away for the big plays that have caused problems for the Rams this year. Laprise had a big kick return in last year’s Thanksgiving game.
“I’ve liked Marshall since we saw him play last year,” said Papazian. “He’s improved a whole bunch and he’s a dangerous quarterback when he has time to throw it. They have a big play receiver in Laprise who is a big concern for us defensively and they have a good group of older kids up front.”
“They’ve got an old school fullback in [Steven Hopkins] who’d rather run over you then dance around and a very good running back in [Ariza Kolloverja] who has been getting most of the carries and is a very dangerous athlete,” Papazian added. “We’ll definitely have our hands full with that offense.”
Linebackers Mike Guzman and Jakob Salinas will be the defensive keys for the Rams. Both have had plenty of opportunities to be in opposing backfields this year thanks to the tough play of the linemen in front of them and they will need to pressure Marshall to slow down the Eastern offense.
Cornerbacks Fitzpatrick and Jose Navedo as well as Hickey, Payton and Dom Va in the defensive secondary will also need to step up defensively for the Rams.
“We know that their defense is going to be cranked up to play us,” Papazian added. “They’ve got some tough kids who are always around the ball. Our guys are going to have to be ready to play from the opening whistle.”
The Rams have been eliminated from postseason contention, but still have an outside chance to claim a share of the CCC Division II-West title if they can win on Thursday and get some help from Platt, who would need to upset unbeaten Maloney.