For decades Thanksgiving morning has been a tradition of high school football teams taking to the gridiron trying to salvage a season or improve on their post-season status. Fans from neighboring towns and cities gather on usually cold mornings as a majority of senior football players officially end their grueling scholastic careers.
For decades Southington’s rival was Plainville High, a bitter opponent in every sport.
The rivalry began in the 1930s with legendary coaches Ted Knurek of PHS and Joe Fontana of SHS. Plainville’s Blue Devils always had problems against the Blue Knights. In 1971 PHS finally snapped a 24-year drought with a victory on a Saturday after Thanksgiving. Large crowds attended these home and away games.
One of the most exciting contests was in 1958. Plainville fielded perhaps its greatest football team, unbeaten and unscored upon. Southington was 6-2 but had played larger schools and wasn’t regarded as the underdog. Playing in Plainville, SHS won a tough 12-0 victory, a defeat that seemingly cursed PHS for years on Thanksgiving mornings. It was devastating for coach Charlie Palmer.
In 1970 one of the other notable games was a 52-50 SHS win, also played in Plainville on a bitterly cold morning.
Southington’s Harry Fager was QB and Jeff Palmer for Plainville. Here are Fager’s recollections. “Coming off a 54-20 win over Bloomfield we were confident that our team was firing on all cylinders for the big game against Plainville. We learned that several Plainville players and coaches were in the stands scouting us. We had read all about how good PHS was with a 7-1 record. We were 5-3 and aware that the last time SHS lost to them was 22 years prior. As tri-captains Donnie Joy, Frank Mann and myself made it clear to our team, we were not going to be that team.”
Fager said the Knights changed their offensive schemes because PHS had been scouting. Early, running back Donnie Joy was injured with a dislocated hip and taken to the hospital. Ray Kastner stepped in and played a tremendous game.
Here’s what Fager recalls as statistics: 14 touchdowns, 102 points, total yards 959, 490 for Plainville and 469 for Southington. Billy Maringola had three touchdown, Bobby Riccio goal-line stand tackle plus two interceptions. Fager was named MVP with 223 yards rushing, three TDs and responsible for 32 points.
On the other side was PHS and its talented quarterback Jeff Palmer, who would get revenge the next year when PHS finally won with Palmer throwing the winning TD pass. His father, Charlie Palmer, was head coach for years. Now it was Coach Lynch. He recalls, “Thanksgiving was bigger than life itself in our household.” Coach Palmer, in 13 seasons, had never defeated Southington.
After watching Thanks-giving games as a youngster, Palmer recalls getting the chance to compete. “I admit the loss in 1970 has stayed with all of us to this day. But thankfully, for a lot of us we were juniors and had a chance next year. I felt bad for the seniors on our team, as fine a team that PHS has fielded, 1970 and 1971 state champs.”
Palmer said the Thanksgiving morning clash with SHS was cherished. “As a player and a competitor, I had always hated and disliked Southington but that was years ago. I now have nothing but love for that program. Our rival had good players and were gentlemen,” said Palmer.
“I remember that we were getting creamed in the first half. We were down 30-6 sand SHS was fired up but nobody panicked. We stayed calm but I think we were in shock. Coach Lynch never got down on us. We had a good team and lots of time remaining,” recalls Palmer.
He credits Tom Gervais, Johnny Brundage, Vet Mason, Jay Buckler and George Sullivan with making plays to finally slow Southington down.
“We would have been happy with a tie but we just ran out of time after holding Southington scoreless in the final period. My 93-year old mother saw plenty of these games but always stated this was the most exciting. We hardly ever passed but on this day it belonged to the quarterbacks,” Palmer said. The modest QB set a PHS record with 325 yards passing and three TDs. Palmer was named co-MVP with Gervais, 239 yards receiving.
“Still have the trophy. It means the world to me,” Palmer concluded.
The rivalry lasted another decade before both schools searched for new rivals.