For the seventh time in the 62-year history of the Battle for the Bell, Bristol Central will go into its annual Thanksgiving Day battle with one loss or less and for the fifth time the Rams will be hoping that they come away with a playoff berth.
The stars have not always been in alignment for the Rams when they have faced the situation in the past. In 1973 the Rams were 7-1 going into Thanksgiving and came out on the short end of a 7-0 decision thanks to Frank Sanders’ second half kick return. The following year the Rams were 9-0 but another long kick return, Fran Richardson’s game winning punt return, and a tough last half defense sent the Lancers home victorious 7-6. Both of those games came before the CIAC playoff system was in place.
In 1979 the Rams went in at 8-1 and a tough 8-6 Thanksgiving Day victory vaulted them into the Class L championship game. Entering Thanksgiving at 8-1 again in 1987, the Rams earned their second (and last) playoff berth with a solid 22-0 win.
The Rams were again 8-1 entering the final game of the 2001 season with all-time offensive leader Tim Washington at the helm and took care of business with a 36-12 win but it wasn’t enough to break into the playoff picture despite the 9-1 record in an era when only four teams made the playoffs.
Central’s final 8-1 Thanksgiving Day bid was the most frustrating of all for the Rams. With a playoff berth within easy reach in 2006 the Aaron Hernandez-led Rams stumbled in the mud at Muzzy Field to lose a 14-14 tie that knocked them out of the playoffs. It was the last tie game in Connecticut high school football history as the tiebreaker rule was adopted in that offseason.
The Rams enter this year’s game with another superstar player and another chance to advance to the postseason. A win would guarantee Central its third playoff appearance. A loss would not knock the Rams out of contention, but it would open the door for a couple of teams who are hoping to break into the top eight. The Rams also hold some hope for a first round home game, but that would take a win and some help from Ansonia, Platt, Trumbull or Middletown who would need to knock off one of the teams currently ahead of the Rams in the ranking.
While the playoffs are certainly a goal, bragging rights and retention of the bell trophy are just as important to the Rams’ players and coaches.
“Every year it’s a big game regardless of the records,” said Central coach Jeff Papazian, “Of course it has added meaning for us this year, but we know regardless of what’s happened before that we will get both teams’ best effort. Our players know that and understand that and will be ready. That’s a good team over there. They’re a handful of points away from a couple more wins”
The Rams come into Thursday’s game riding an eight game win streak, one short of tying the school record. They are led by Victor Rosa who is having a memorable senior season. Rosa has rushed for 2,316 yards and 36 touchdowns as he inches his way closer to the top of both the Bristol Central and state record books. He has passed for an additional 670 yards and six touchdowns.
He is the reigning Thomas R. Monahan offensive player of the game winner for the Rams off his five touchdown, 171-yard rushing performance that led the Rams to their overtime win over the Lancers two years ago.
But the Lancers have a formidable offensive machine as well in Alex Marshall who has rushed for 1,638 yards and has moved into the top ten on Bristol’s all-time single season rushers list.
“Alex Marshal makes things go for them,” said Papazian. “He is a very good back and has had a really good season for them. Not many teams have been able to contain him. We know that’s what we’re going to need to do to get out of there with a win.”
The Rams come into Thursday’s game off their best all-around effort of the season in their shutout win over Plainville.
“That’s the best we’ve played to date,” said Papazian. “Defensively we had a good game plan put together and the kids did a really good job of executing the plan. We got those early turnovers and were able to capitalize. The turnovers were the big story of that game. If you turn the ball over to our offense it can really cost you.”
Malachi Jones had a big early fumble recovery and Anthony Paulino came up with an interception to help the Rams to a quick 22-0 lead in the Plainville win. Nick Salinas, with help from Xavier Ramirez added a late interception
Papazian was also happy with the number of players who stepped up in the Plainville game and is looking for more of the same on Thursday
“Anytime you pitch a shutout you have to know it was a team effort and feel good about it,” Papzian said. “It was good to have Zach Vanasse back in the lineup against Plainville,” he said. “He brings some experience into that secondary. He’s an older kid and a good athlete and really helped boost the secondary. I also thought Jon Gomez had a big game with a big sack. Johnny Rios, Mason Stokes and Julius Powell have played steady for us all year on that defensive front and the secondary was big.”
The defense will be the key for the Rams on Thursday. “With the way our offense has been going this year, you have to feel pretty confident of the defense can come up with a few stops,” Papazian said.