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No horsing around

Sophomore running back Keith Moore also reached the end zone on a long rushing TD.

Before the 119th installment of the ancient Northeast-Central Thanksgiving football rivalry, senior linebacker Steve Rowe gathered his teammates on the sideline and had a simple message:

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This is our championship game. Play like it.

Mission accomplished.

The Vikings absolutely overwhelmed the overmatched Lancers in every aspect of the game en route to a 41–0 whitewashing. Northeast led 35–0 at halftime and the defense, led by linebacker Rowe and defensive end Gladimir Paul (a University of Virginia signee), allowed just 27 yards of total offense for the entire game. As a team, Central managed just three first downs.

An up-and-down season saw the talented Vikings, whom many picked to win the Public League Class AAAA in the preseason, lose three of their first four games by a combined four points. Head coach Phil Gormley’s team got hot, winning four of its next five, but the Vikings ultimately bowed out in the quarterfinals to Simon Gratz.

For these reasons, playing on Thanksgiving represented Northeast’s Super Bowl.

“We had a disappointing season and were planning on going to the championship,” Rowe said. “Obviously, we came up short, so I was just telling the seniors that we needed to go out with a bang. For a lot of us, this was the last game we’ll ever play, so we had to leave with no regrets. Everyone stepped up.”

On offense, senior running back Rushawn Grange crossed the goal line three times (runs of 35, 3 and 5) and in the process crossed the 1,000-yard barrier, finishing with 1,084 yards and 15 touchdowns. Quarterback Asa Manley, a converted running back, hit senior wideout Clayton Rush for a 56-yard, second-quarter touchdown that made it 21–0, and senior Travon Williams (28 yards) and sophomore Keith Moore (26 yards) added long touchdown scampers.

On the season, Manley accounted for 16 total touchdowns, while Williams, a transfer from Lincoln via Archbishop Ryan, added 10 TDs with a team-leading 33 catches and 446 yards.

“I’ve played in three different Turkey Bowl games now, and this was the most important one,” Williams said. “It’s the oldest one in the country. I don’t know any of the alumni personally, but I felt their love in coming back. Northeast welcomed me with open arms, and I wanted to do the alumni a favor. We wanted to put on a show and make a statement.”

Following last year’s crushing 6–3 overtime loss — the first time Central (1–11) had reclaimed the coveted wooden Horse Trophy that is the prize for winning this game in nine years — Northeast (6–6) understood ending 2014 with a loss was an unacceptable outcome.

“We understood what we were coming into and what we had to do,” Manley said. “All the alumni worry and care about is this game, so we had to go bring the horse back home from them. That was the game plan all week long, and we never let up. It’s a blessing to win this game.”

Added Grange: “It’s a big deal, almost bigger than a championship. You’ve got alumni from way, way back still alive and coming to this game. It’s a big deal to everyone, and a pleasure to win for all the people who were here back in the day.”

With the win, Northeast bumped its all-time series lead to 57–52–10, indicating just how hard-fought and intense this rivalry has been through the years.

While Paul will play at the highest of levels on Saturdays in 2015, it remains to be seen if players like Rowe, Williams, Manley and Grange will follow suit. All have the talent and potential to contribute in some way at the collegiate level, but they also realize this could be the last time they ever suit up in pads, which made the victory that much more satisfying.

“Playing in that game meant everything to me,” Rowe said. “We had such high expectations this season, and as soon as we lost to Gratz this became our championship game. Losing would have been a devastating way to end the season. It’s our Super Bowl, our biggest game and what we all live for. To go out there in my senior year and put up a goose egg on defense, it’s just awesome. It means everything to win and hold that horse again one more time.”

And as Gormley has said in all the years he’s been a part of this rivalry (two as head coach, 10 as an assistant), when players come back for their high school reunions, nobody will be talking about Mrs. Smith’s English class or Mrs. Jones’ Spanish class. Only four words will truly stand the test of time:

Did you beat Central?

“What I’ll always remember is playing with my family, putting our foot on their throat, never letting up and getting the horse back,” Manley said. “Nothing else matters.”

“These guys, they’re like (brothers) to me,” Williams said. “Blood couldn’t make us any closer.”

Grange agreed.

“I love it,” he said. “We had a rough year, which was surprising because we had one of the best teams in the Pub. Losing that first-round game, it was sad, but now we leave with a win … with a bang.”

Now, the seniors get to graduate and look forward to the next stages of their lives. Some will play in college, while most others won’t. But no matter what, they’ll always be welcomed back to Northeast on Thanksgiving to watch along with thousands of others who, like them, this game means everything to.

“I personally don’t think coming back as an alum will be any different,” Rowe said. “Only thing is I can’t put the pads on and play, but the intensity I feel for the trophy, the rivalry and my school, that will always stay the same. It will be the same when I’m 50. And I can tell people that in my senior year I went out, won 41–0 and got the horse back. That’s what it’s all about.” ••

Rushawn Grange found the end zone three times, rushing for 109 yards on 12 carries. He crossed the 1,000-yard barrier for the first time.

A large crowd turned out for the 119th installment of the Northeast-Central Thanksgiving rivalry. Northeast avenged last year’s loss in a big way, throttling the Lancers, 41–0. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

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