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Stonington-Westerly rivalry silent on Thanksgiving for first time since 1921

The Stonington football team decided to make the best of a bad situation.

If the Bears couldn’t play this season and, most importantly, rival Westerly on Thanksgiving, then they’d play an intrasquad game instead.

They made plans for a “Brown and White Game” touch football game on Thanksgiving morning. There would be officials and announcers. The seniors drafted teams and were practicing. They were even designing plays, including run plays (they are, after all, a double wing team) despite the fact that there’d be no blocking.

Once again, the COVID-19 pandemic ruined Stonington's plans when the school district went to distance learning last week.

“It’s definitely starting to hit hard more than it ever has that there’s not going to be a Turkey Day game this year and we’re not going to play Westerly,” said Bears senior two-way lineman Luke Panciera. "It's going to be different."

Stonington-Westerly is the both nation’s oldest continuous Thanksgiving Day rivalry with the most overall games played. New London-Norwich Free Academy is the nation's oldest rivalry — the Bulkeley School for Boys in New London first played NFA in 1875 — but they didn’t start playing one another on Thanksgiving until 2000 when the Eastern Connecticut Conference merged with the Quinebaug Valley Conference and changed some holiday rivalry games.

The Stonington-Westerly rivalry began in 1911 (Westerly won, 15-0). They didn’t play in 1920 or 1921 but have played every year on Thanksgiving since. The Bears lead the series 74-69-17.

Stonington head coach A.J. Massengale had come to terms a while ago that there wouldn’t be a Westerly game, but the realization started to resonate this week.

“I’m sitting here in my house with my kids and my son (Ben), who is a sophomore,” Massengale said. “We were just having a discussion about some past Thanksgiving Day games; kind of reminiscing about it. (Ben) got kind of frustrated.

“We haven’t dwelled on it or talked a lot about it. We’ve just been kind of living our lives. ... This week, it’s all kind of hitting home.”

Massengale is in his 18th season as Stonington's head coach. He said the 2008 game at Westerly was his most memorable of the rivarly.

Westerly had gone ahead, 19-16, with one minute, 39 seconds left. The Bears were forced to use their spread formation for the first time all season and were out of timeouts.

Stonington moved downfield quickly, and Jim Ceil threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to Brendan Wilkins with 42.7 seconds to give the Bears a 22-19 win.

“(Westerly’s Mike Portunato) had a great, unbelievable touchdown right on our sidelines,” Massengale said. “Westerly kicked off, and I remember the roar of the (Westerly) crowd coming across (the field). ... I can feel the Westerly people as they went nuts over this catch.

“Brendan Wilkins ends up catching that pass from Jimmy Ceil and we win the game. (Westerly was) still celebrating. They didn’t even have time to recognize what was happening. Their sideline, everyone was still going crazy, and we went right down the field and scored. Just an unbelievable game.”

Massengale isn’t sure what he’s going to do Thanksgiving morning without an early morning breakfast with his staff and a game to coach.

“We’re trying to get a couple of guys together and just hang around a little bit,” Panciera said about his plans. “Maybe play a little bit of backyard football. Other than that, it’s just not going to be anything special. It’s just going to kind of be a last hurrah for our senior season.”

n.griffen@theday.com

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