BRISTOL - Prior to this year, nothing ever stopped the Bristol Central and Bristol Eastern football teams from squaring off on Thanksgiving in the Battle for the Bell since Central opened in 1959.
As the future of high school tackle football in Connecticut remains murky, the Rams and Lancers closed out their heavily-altered fall season with a seven-on-seven game Friday Afternoon. As the skill position players ran exclusively pass plays for the duration of the two 35-minute halves, everyone continued to face the reminder that nothing can replace the game that was taken away from them.
“It’s good to get out here, but it’s hard overall,” Central head coach Jeff Papazian said. “It’s been a tough couple months here. Sure it was good to get out here and run around and compete a little bit, but it’s not the same. It’s good to get some work in.
“[It’s] not even close. It was something to occupy some time, but in the same boat, it’s just been really hard.”
With last year’s Thanksgiving matchup being one of the most intense in the rivalry’s 60-year history, which was the first to ever go to overtime, both teams were more than ready to add another chapter to the town’s history.
“I think we really found out this fall how much kids really do love football,” Julius said. “This wasn’t the experience we were hoping for, but at the same time that kids really do love football and they love competing with their friends and they love being a part of something and that structure that the kids need.”
Even though a four-game schedule of seven-on-seven and lineman challenges does not remotely resemble the high school football season anyone is used to, the environment still intensifies for both of these schools when it comes to taking each other on. The Lancers came out on top at the end of Friday’s meeting after a late comeback and were excited to earn the win even if it wasn’t avenging last year’s Battle for the Bell.
“Any time Eastern and Central play each other, it doesn’t matter the sport, there’s an extra excitement in the air,” Eastern head coach Anthony Julius said. “The kids feel it on both sides. It’s a really cool thing and it’s a unique experience that not a lot of towns get to experience because they don’t have a crosstown rival.
The unifying thought between football players, coaches and everyone else involved with football is that this was a nice placeholder until the spring season comes. As long as there is the prospect of having a real season this year, that is all that anyone cares about.
“It’s certainly different than what we all envisioned,” Julius said. “Once we were kind of given some direction, our guys were super committed and they were here. They continued to work every single day and they got better this fall, which is obviously something we were looking to do. We’re really hopeful for the spring and hoping that we can showcase some of the hard work we put in this fall.”
Despite not practicing with pads or under many of the circumstances they were used to, this format of football does offer the players opportunities to get better for once they can return to playing with tackling. While high school football is often very run dominant, this passing-only iteration gave teams the opportunity to expand their abilities.
“Definitely the chemistry and the passing game,” Central junior Victor Rosa said. “Last year we ran the ball [a lot], we threw it too, but this definitely helps our passing game and we’ll definitely have another weapon if we have our season in February.”
The biggest fear for everyone, especially the coaches, is not giving this year’s seniors the proper send off for four years of commitment to their football programs. They earned to go out leading a team for one final, real season and they have waited, and will continue to wait, for months on end to find out if they will get that.
“It would be a tough pill to swallow,” Papazian said. “18 seniors, a whole bunch of two-year starters, three-year starters, four year starters, we’d have to move past it but it would be really hard because these are experiences they’re not going to get back. We have some good young kids, but I’m always going to feel for this group. We have so many of them, so many kids who have been playing varsity for a number of years, it’s hard.”
Matt Hornick can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or firstname.lastname@example.org