Monday, April 13, 2015

Super Bowl-bound teams weigh injury potential vs. playing rivals

The appeal of an undefeated season was too juicy. The prospect of finishing the year No. 1 too attainable. The history behind the 82-year rivalry with Foxboro too meaningful.

The Thanksgiving game was simply too irresistible for the Mansfield seniors in 2013. When coach Mike Redding asked them if they wanted to play in the game — instead of rest for the Super Bowl against St. John’s (Shrewsbury) — the response was an overwhelming and unanimous yes.

“It’s such a good game to win for bragging rights,” Redding said. “It’s so hard to say to the kids, ‘We’re not going to play you.’ ”

They played, and the result, a 14-7 win for the Hornets, was overshadowed by a slew of injuries. Star wide receiver Brendan Hill tore his ACL on a bang-bang collision. Running back Miguel Perez separated his shoulder while blocking a defensive back. Two-way player Kyle Hurley tore cartilage in his knee.

Mansfield ended up winning the Division 2 Super Bowl — Perez and Hurley returned, and the injuries didn’t prove insurmountable — but the situation gave coaches in similar spots something to ponder.

This year, as teams prepare for Super Bowls at Gillette Stadium Dec. 6, nearly all have to play a Thanksgiving game first. Coaches have to decide whether to play their starters, and respect the tradition, or to rest them.

With the new playoff system, teams played state semifinal games Nov. 22. Just five days later, they wake up for a morning Thanksgiving game. Then nine days after that, it’s off to Gillette.

Three games in two weeks is a grueling stretch for any high school athlete. If Redding could do it over again, he’d give more consideration to resting certain starters.

Leading up to the Foxboro game, Mansfield had played all 11 of its games on turf. Frigid temperatures, little rest, and poor footing on grass were a bad combination. In hindsight, Redding might have rested some skill players.

Then again, getting to Gillette is much more difficult than it used to be. It’s a tough balancing act, Redding says. The key is to do what’s best for your specific program.

Despite the risks, Marshfield coach Lou Silva is set on playing his starters against Duxbury on Thanksgiving. The undefeated Rams, who will face Longmeadow in the Division 2 Super Bowl, have prepared for the Dragons like they would any other opponent.

Silva said his players go to the beach with Duxbury players during the summer. There’s a sense of familiarity, and the rivalry means something.

Duxbury leads the all-time Thanksgiving series, 14-13-2, but Marshfield’s senior class hasn’t won a game at Duxbury.

Silva doesn’t want to deprive his seniors of that chance.

While the inevitable buzz of the Super Bowl looms, Silva said the team’s only focus this week is Duxbury. He likes certain aspects of the new playoff system, but believes the quick turnaround between games makes winning on Thanksgiving even tougher.

Three days of preparation isn’t much, but Silva can’t control that at this point.

“It’s a total disadvantage, but hey, what the heck,” Silva said, “we’ll pay the price to go to Gillette.”

For Dartmouth coach Rick White — whose team is fresh off a miraculous 20-16 come-from-behind win over Walpole — the situation is a little bit trickier.

The Indians are one win away from their first championship since White’s heyday at the school in 1984. He doesn’t want to jeopardize their chances by playing his starters the entire game against Fairhaven.

He expects Fairhaven, which leads the all-time Thanksgiving series 42-36-4, to play with passion. It’s Fairhaven’s Super Bowl. White believes it would be disrespectful to rest his starters the entire game.

White’s grandfather played against Fairhaven on one of Dartmouth’s first teams in the 1920s. For years, the home team has hospitably hosted the visitors’ faculty, seniors and cheerleaders for a meal the week of Thanksgiving.

Despite the holiday’s perks, White acknowledges the game itself can be treacherous injury-wise.

He says some players may get limited reps this year. He doesn’t want them to miss out on the chance to play at Gillette.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” White said. “It’s not the greatest situation.”

This year, White is making sure his players remember they have a lot be thankful for. Dartmouth senior Will Kuphal lost his father, a prominent doctor in the town, last week.

White, with many of his players, attended “the biggest wake he’s ever been to,” which spanned from 4 p.m. until 10 p.m. at St. Mary’s Church. So many people were there that it became “standing room only.”

The wake was Friday, and Dartmouth’s remarkable win came Saturday night.

“It was a lot for these kids,” White said. “It’s life. You’ve got to embrace it, but there’s a lot of adversity you have to overcome. It’s a great lesson for our kids to appreciate what they have.”

.   .   .

For all but the 12 teams playing in the Super Bowl games, Thanksgiving is all about tradition, rivalries, and games that are dated in decades, even centuries. Boston Latin and Boston English will meet for the 128th time in a game played at Harvard Stadium. Last year English beat Latin for the first time since 1997. Medford heads to Malden to play in their 127th game. And in Needham, the Rockets host Wellesley in their 127th matchup.

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