Bears vs. Bulldogs: High school football rivalry hits 100th year
Heston Sutman recalls going to a Stonington-Westerly football game as an 8-year-old with his friend, George Burnside, who had an older brother on the Stonington team. He can still hear the clop-clopping of the players' cleats as they walked on the sidewalk on the way to the field.
"I remember being in awe of the high school players. I remember the gold helmets," Sutman said. "You aspire to do that sometime."
To Bob Mitchell, Thanksgiving meant a car ride to visit relatives in Manchester, N.H., while straining to hear the Westerly-Stonington game on the radio for as many exits as possible.
"I remember having this yearning to be there in the worst way," Mitchell said. "Not that I didn't want to be with my family. I did."
Like a generation before them and another after them, Mitchell and Sutman would grow up to play in the annual Westerly-Stonington game. Mitchell would become an All-State running back/defensive back at Westerly, and Sutman would quarterback the Stonington team.
This week they've been thinking about the annual game even more than usual. When Stonington and Westerly face off this morning at Stonington, it will be the 100th anniversary of the first game between the two cross-state rivals.
The series began in 1911, with Westerly prevailing, 15-0. It is the most visited in the history of the United States at 151 meetings, as recognized by the National Federation of High School Association Record Book, with the teams formerly playing twice or even three times a year.
As far back as 1953, the teams were referred to as "ancient rivals" by The Day. Twenty years ago the rivalry was featured on Good Morning America.
Perhaps fittingly, this year's game has meaning. Stonington (6-3) needs to beat Westerly (7-2) to qualify for the Class M state playoffs. Westerly has already qualified for the Rhode Island Division II playoffs.
Participants in the game have gone on to become first selectmen and police chiefs, high school principals, coaches and war heroes.
Mitchell is the principal at Chariho High School in Wood River Junction, R.I. Sutman is the director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for Old Saybrook Public Schools.
Stonington graduate Jim Emilio died while fighting with the Marine Corps in World War II. Stonington's Dennis Dwyer, who was talked into playing football by the freshman coach, Donald Ostigny, only to become the team's MVP on Thanksgiving, 1960, was a Green Beret.
Sutman remembers being approached by an older gentleman before the 1989 game with Westerly: Putting his hand on Sutman's arm, he told the Bears' quarterback, "I got $100 riding on this right arm."
Stonington won the game, 22-0.
Two years later later, Mitchell, a 1973 Westerly graduate, coached Stonington to the Class SS state championship, the team's only Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference-sponsored title.
"Kids who play for both Westerly and Stonington understand very clearly what the significance in the rivalry is," Mitchell said. He is a lifelong resident of Westerly, where his youngest son, Adam, wears his father's old No. 24 for the high school team. "It's something you remember for the rest of your lives.
"They're playing for everyone that has not just played but who has gone to their respective schools before them," Mitchell added. "People have an interest in who won the game regardless of where they are. Whether they're in the military in Iraq or Afghanistan, I'm sure they're going to want to know. It's just a part of the culture in both places.
"You grow up knowing from the time you're very little that there's this respectful rivalry that's been going on literally for 100 years."
Three miles separate Stonington High School, at 176 South Broad St., from Westerly High School, at 23 Ward Ave.
"We're not talking about a major difference here," Mitchell said. "The kids aren't really all that different."
From Mitchell's perspective, here's what makes the Westerly-Stonington rivalry a perfect one: The towns are in two states, separated symbolically by the Pawcatuck River. The Rhode Island faithful read The Westerly Sun; on the Connecticut side, the local paper is The Day. The Westerly residents watch the Rhode Island news, those in Stonington watch the Connecticut news.
It's enough, in any case, to create a shouting match the night before Thanksgiving when the cheerleaders, pep bands and fans from both teams (players are not allowed) descend on the Westerly Post Office for a rally, a decades-long tradition.
To a person, however, former players echo the sentiment of former Stonington Police Chief David Erskine, who noted recently that other than the three hours on Thanksgiving Day when the game is played, the towns form a "tight-knit community."
"The week before the games, we pushed them and they pushed us," Stonington's Dwyer said of his time as a player. "We'd ride by in the car and we'd tease each other. But when the game was over ... we'd all be at the victory dances at the high school. The Stonington guys, we had our bumps and our bruises and our black eyes from the game, but it dropped there."
Even when Mitchell crossed the border in 1988 to become Stonington's coach, there was no sense that he was an outsider. He brought with him some of the motivational techniques he learned from his former coach at Westerly, Sal Augeri, whom Mitchell called "masterful" when it came to preparing a team mentally.
Sutman said the new coach's charisma was palpable from his first team meeting. Mitchell told his players they would never lose a Thanksgiving Day game on his watch, a prophecy that proved true as the Bears were 4-0-1 the next five seasons.
"I'm 55 years old now and I can tell you, as a player and as a coach, I always wanted my team to win," Mitchell said.
100 years and counting
In 1991, Stonington won the Thanksgiving Day game over Westerly, 25-13, before some 7,000 fans at Stonington's Donald E. Palmer Field. That propelled the Bears into the Class SS championship game against Sacred Heart of Waterbury, which they won, 14-0.
On Nov. 16 of this season, Stonington hung on for a 41-40 victory over Foran of Milford in the Bears' second-to-last regular-season game. Harry Calmar scored what would prove to be the game-winning touchdown in the third quarter.
Now, on the 20th anniversary of Stonington needing to beat Westerly to make the playoffs, the Bears will have to do that again.
Making the comparison to the '91 season even more striking, Westerly also won the championship that year, taking the Class C crown. This year the Bulldogs are in the playoffs as well, scheduled to meet Central of Providence in the Division II semifinals Nov. 29 at Westerly.
"It's always definitely been a favorite game," said Westerly running back/safety Spencer Read, the Bulldogs' captain, who leads the team with 610 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns. "It's the game that gets the most attendance against one of our better opponents. You have upwards of 5,000 people and you know they're there for a purpose."
Westerly is coached by Chris Wriedt, a self-described baseball coach who is in his 18th season as head football coach and has won three state championships. Wriedt, who has more wins and has coached more seasons than any of his predecessors at Westerly, was inducted into the Rhode Island High School Football Coaches' Association Hall of Fame in 2008.
"Definitely a legend," Read said of Wriedt. "He changed my life; just his speeches and his inspiration. Any virtue he has, you want to model."
Stonington is coached by A.J. Massengale, a former Fitch High School running back who scored 17 touchdowns in his senior season in 1997. Massengale is in his eighth season as the Bears' head coach.
Massengale taught the school fight song, "Here's to Old Stonington," sung to the tune of "Anchors Aweigh," to his team on the way home from last week's game against Foran so the players would be ready to hit the high notes at the high school pep rally for today's game.
In the course of 100 years, the rivarly has been passed from generation to generation.
"We've had uncles and fathers and grandfathers that played in the game," said Stonington senior nose guard Pete Sieczkiewicz, whose dad once played for Westerly.
"People ask how we're going to do, mostly," said Westerly junior running back Adam Mitchell, whose dad once coached the Bulldogs' biggest rival to a state championship. "Everyone asks, even the teachers. It's something for everyone to look forward to. I think everyone just feels privileged to get to play in it."
By the numbers
Thanksgiving Day wins
1917 — Westerly 122, Stonington 0. Nearly all Stonington's players had entered the military service.
1965 — Westerly 38, Stonington 0. The only night game played between the two schools.
1978 — Westerly 2, Stonington 0. Controversy ensues as a 41-yard field goal attempt by Stonington's Lou Stefanski is deemed wide despite it being signaled “good” by one referee. Somehow, in Westerly-Stonington lore, this becomes the day Stefanski's field goal was “too high.”
1991 — Stonington 25, Westerly 13. In a game played before 7,000 fans, Stonington's victory qualifies it for the state playoffs. Both schools go on to win state championships.
2000 — Westerly 24, Stonington 17 (OT). This is the only overtime game on record in the series. After a 57-yard field goal attempt by Stonington's Mike Mellow misses on the final play of regulation, Westerly's Brian Lynch rushes for a 10-yard touchdown on the first play of overtime.
2008 — Stonington 22, Westerly 19. Considered one of the best fourth-quarter finishes in series history. Westerly drives 77 yards in seven plays to take a 19-16 lead with 1:39 to play, but Stonington responds by going 70 yards on four plays to win the game with 42.7 seconds remaining, capped by a 19-yard touchdown catch by Brendan Wilkins.
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