By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – Is this the year the Bristol Eastern football team finally falls on Thanksgiving?
Well, if the Lancers can help it, you should expect the same outcome Eastern has enjoyed over the years since the 2007 campaign.
And that’s another consecutive victory on Turkey Day.
Several senior classes at Eastern have now never known defeat against Central throughout four years of scholastic football and this current group wants to keep that tradition alive and well.
Eastern has played much better as of late, in terms of offense, and should be able to rack up at least a couple touchdowns on the Rams.
But will that be enough?
Bristol Central is a talented crew but, will Eastern captains Josh O’Keefe, Darieyn Tate and Zac Thompson lead their crew to victory on T-Day?
This game won’t be as one-sided as you think (that 1-8 record the Lancers carry is a devious tally) and for more on the game, let’s take a look at the home team of the contest in the “Battle for the Bell.”
Head Coach: Paul Philippon (Hasn’t lost on Thanksgiving at Eastern since 2005)
Date and Time of the annual event: The teams clash on Thanksgiving morning, 10:30 a.m., from Muzzy Field in Bristol
Eastern Team Record: 1-8 overall; 1-3 in CCC Division II-West play
Last Year: Eastern defeated Central 20-18 and haven’t posted a loss on Thanksgiving since a 20-7 set-back in 2005.
The Series: Eastern trails in the all-time series 31-23-2. This is the 57th battle of this epic series between the squads.
Series Fact: The Lancers continue to roam in never-before seen territory as Eastern looks to keep Central from winning on Thanksgiving for a school record ninth consecutive year. The previous best stretch for Eastern came back during the years of 1963-1970 when the squad won seven of eight showdowns with the Rams.
Players to Watch: Alex Hunter (sr, WR/QB/DE); Edgar Hernandez (sr, RB/DB); Josh Sampson (sr, RB/K/LB); Ronte Cooper (sr, OL/DL); Josh O’Keefe (sr, OL/DL); Darieyn Tate (sr, QB/DB); Josh DiMattia (sr, OL/LB); Riley Mason (sr, WR/DB), Joey Colangelo (sr, OL/LB); Dante Collins (sr, WR); Luis Rivera (sr, OL/DL), Danny Portal (sr, OL/DL), Edgar Hernandez (jr, RB/DB), Jared Procko (jr, WR/DB), Mike Massarelli (jr, TE/DE), Rajon Collins (so, OL/DL), Ariza Kolloverja (so, WR/DB), Mike Barrett (so, K), Andrew Consalvo (so, OL/DL), Anthony Circosta (sr, OL/DL), Reese McGowan (sr, OL/DL), Ben Ferraro (so, TE/DE, injured).
Eastern’s Points-pergame: 15.0 per contest (135 points scored overall)
Opponent’s Points-per-game: 31.6 per contest (284 points allowed overall)
Why Eastern could win…The Lancers have some athletes on both sides of the ball and when the team is all on the same page – in terms of offense – the squad has been able to stick some points on the scoreboard.
Eastern averages about five yards-per-carry and when the Eastern offensive line, a unit that has been able to open seams and holes in opposing defenses all season long, the likes of Edgar Hernandez (599 yards, 5.0 yards-per-carry, 3 TDs), Josh Sampson (430 yards, 4.5 per-carry, 7 TDs), and quarterback Darieyn Tate (4.0 yards-per-carry, 16.9 yards-per-throw and 4 touchdowns) have made significant gains.
Tate also leads the squad in receptions with five before moving into the QB position on a regular basis while four different Eastern players have caught a pass for a touchdown.
Ten different players have made a reception for the Lancers in 2015 and the offense seems to be diversifying every week.
What offensive tomfoolery will be in store for Central on Thanksgiving?
Philippon is a proponent of hard-nosed, old school physical football and don’t be surprised if the double-wing – a staples of his Lancers’ squads gone bye – re-emerges at Muzzy Field once again.
Defensively, Eastern has nearly made 10 pickoffs this season while Thompson leads the squad in tackles.
O’Keefe has a couple sacks to his name this year and also leads the squad in tackles for losses with three-and-a-half.
Sampson, Ariza Kolloverja, Joey Colangelo, Ronte Cooper, Hernandez, Danny Portal, and even Jared Prokco have come on to make big stops.
But Eastern gives up over 31 points-per-game and the home team doesn’t want to see Central score anywhere near that tally.
This game is going to be about offense and, just as important, will be Sampson kicking extra points (don’t forget his blocking in the offensive sets…) and the punting of the ever-improving Mike Barrette if healthy.
This is a game belonging to special teams – especially if this thing is going to be as close as it has the potential of being.
If everything clicks on both sides of the ball, Eastern should be able to wrangle in a victory over the Rams.
The X-Factor…Alex “Bama” Hunter. He’s truly the X-factor this season (he seems to be every year when this game comes around…) for Eastern and is a jack-of-all-trades athlete in terms of ability.
He can chuck a 40 yard pass from the quarterback position (seven passes, 107 yards), he can return a kickoff for 85 yards, he can generate a game-saving tackle and he has the ability to out-run his opponent and gallop into the end zone (6.5 yards-per-carry, two touchdowns).
Guys like Sampson have been excellent in Eastern’s blocking schemes this season and if “Bama” can hold onto the ball, he could be the ultimate difference-maker.
The Lancers holding on to the ball brings us to the next part of the Eastern football story:
Bristol Eastern must NOT…Fumble the football in this one.
Fumbles and the giveaways that come from such gaffes have led to doom and demise this year for Eastern.
And that’s absolutely taken away chances for added victories and, at the very least, a possibility of a .500 season.
Fumbles against Farmington (33-20 loss), Wethersfield (14-6 loss), Maloney (21-8), and Platt (35-28) stopped critical drives deep in the opponents territory and those reversals off turnovers have kept the points from piling up on the Lancers’ side of the scoreboard.
Turnovers are a part of the game of football but, going into the contest against Middletown, Eastern had already lost a dozen footballs via fumbles and that cannot happen against the talented Rams.
The other part of the equation, defensively anyways, is Eastern must NOT miss tackles.
Against Platt, those misses piled up quickly and in the end, one or two fourth quarter stops would have propelled the Lancers to victory over the Panthers.
Credit belongs to the team and players as an Eastern defender always seems to be in the way of a running back with the ball but making that first tackle has been the trying part.
Eastern assistant coach Sal Cintorino can be seen pulling out his hair when tallying up yards after contact statistics this past season (or yards-after-catch for that matter…).
Lastly…This is a home game is in name only for the Lancers at Muzzy Field.
Central has played games here all season long and Eastern has not.
A true home game for the Lancers would have been Thanksgiving from the grounds of the Bristol Eastern campus (why hasn’t that happened yet?).
This is a huge advantage for the Rams but Eastern just needs to go out and play ball – regardless of the venue.
This is the showcase game and despite a ton of trials and tribulation, the Lancers have a chance to keep that brass bell at Eastern high school with a big victory from Muzzy Field.
And the winner is…Like the last few seasons, this game is going to be very close.
This could be a combined 10 turnover “tomfoolery bowl” if the teams aren’t careful.
If that’s the case, Eastern will sneak this one out, 22-20, from Muzzy Field on Thanksgiving Day.
The turnovers – fumbles – will be the deciding factor of the game.
But here’s the bottom line: This contest is Bristol Eastern’s state tournament game.
And it’s time to win one, final game.
By MICHAEL LETENDRE