Thanksgiving football preview: Central vs. Northeast

Central defeated Northeast on Thanksgiving for the first time in nine years in 2013.

Phil Gormley didn’t have a Thanksgiving football game to look forward to when he was a student at Cardinal Dougherty, nor did he when he was the head coach at Jenkintown High School.

After losing his inaugural game in the ancient Northeast-Central Turkey Day battle in 2013, the former Vikings assistant and current Northeast head coach got a quick reminder of just how important this game is to a lot of people following his team’s 6–3 overtime loss, which brought the all-time series to 56–52–10 in the Vikings’ favor.

“It’s all I’ve thought about since last Thanksgiving,” Gormley said. “It’s a game people talk about all year long. When these kids come back for their 20-year reunions, nobody’s talking about Mrs. Smith’s Spanish class. It’s, ‘Did you beat Central?’ Before last year, we had beat them nine straight times, going back to when I was an assistant here.”

Lancers head coach Rich Drayton, a 1987 Central grad, shared Gormley’s sentiment, and his crystal-clear recollections of his own Thanksgiving memories as a player spoke volumes about how this contest sticks with you for the long haul.

“I remember winning 60–3 in 1986 and 14–0 my junior year,” Drayton said. “It’s what people in this rivalry ask about. It’s a big-time game, and it means a lot to a lot of people. If you’re in the market and you’ve got your Central gear on, usually the first question people ask is, ‘Did you beat Northeast?’ ”

And while the 2014 season may not have been Central’s best (the Lancers are 1–10 and have lost seven straight), both coaches agreed that in this game, the oldest continuous high school Thanksgiving rivalry in the United States, you can throw the standings out with yesterday’s garbage the moment you hit the field.

“In this game, you don’t get concerned about records,” Gormley said. “Rich is a good coach who will have his kids ready to play. I go back in this rivalry 16 to 18 years, and I can remember at least two occasions where we were playing for the title game and Central beat us, and they had been sitting at home for a few weeks. On our side, this year was a disappointment for us because our talent was better than our record showed.

“So for both of us, this game means everything. Win and it makes your season; lose and you have a bitter taste in your mouth until you suit up again next year.”

Drayton concurred.

“We didn’t have the best season, but we can rectify that by winning on Thanksgiving,” he said. “We want to send our seniors out on a good note. That’s the focus. Will it happen? Well, a lot of things can happen between now and then.”

The Vikings, at 5–6, made the playoffs but lost to Simon Gratz in the Class AAAA quarterfinals. They are led by senior running back Rushawn Grange (975 yards, 12 TDs), senior QB Asa Manley (1,331 total yards, 15 total TDs) and senior wideout Travon Williams (33 catches, 446 yards, nine total TDs) on offense; on defense, end Gladimir Paul (Virginia commit) leads an athletic unit also featuring linemates Charles Anderson and Vince Stratton, as well as linebacker Steve Rowe.

The Lancers, who don’t throw the ball much, are led by leading rushers Jeremiah Watson (563 yards), Jaron Waring (389 yards) and Blake Schwartz (287 yards). Central lost its 10 games by an average margin of 22.5 points per game.

“We’ve played teams all year with talent on both sides of the ball, and they’re no exception,” Drayton said. “It’s up to the kids to execute the game plan and limit big plays. Offensively, we need to hold on to the ball; defensively, we know we have to make them earn every yard and first down.”

It will be the biggest, loudest crowd either team has played in front of this season, and make no mistake about it: they both want to win, badly.

“It adds a level of energy to know that no matter your record, anyone can win this game,” Gormley said. “The head-to-head over the last 118 years shows that. For most of these seniors, it’s the last time they’ll ever put the pads on. The guys who didn’t play much but still came to practice every day, they were committed through two-a-days and offseason lifting. You need those guys, and I want their last experience to be a positive thing. We’re going to get as many of them on the field as we can. We just want to get on to that field, get a win and give these seniors a positive memory to remember forever.”

“I tend to agree with Phil,” Drayton said. “People won’t be talking about English class or what happened during lunchtime at the reunions. It will be, ‘Did you win on Thanksgiving? Did you beat Northeast your senior season?’ Nobody forgets these games. Anyone involved in them, they still remember.” ••

Northeast quarterback Asa Manley