At first glance, last Wednesday’s 60-0 Bishop Fenwick win over St. Mary’s was shocking. I hadn’t seen the Crusaders play this season, but I knew they had plenty of offensive threats and I knew they could score points. I had seen St. Mary’s play multiple times, including its win over Cohasset in the Division 7 state semifinal, and I knew the Spartans were playing their best football. I was interested in finding out who the better team was. Wednesday’s game did nothing to answer that question.
But the more I thought about it, the more that 60-0 final made sense.
St. Mary’s, bound for the Division 7 state championship game this Saturday at Gillette Stadium, dealt with injuries and a short week of practice in preparing for Fenwick. Very rarely is that a winning combination at the high school level. Fenwick, on the other hand, had a week and a half to prepare for the Spartans. Advantage Fenwick.
Spartans first-year coach Sean Driscoll wasn’t taking any chances with his key players in this one. St. Mary’s sidelined six starters because of injuries and played a number of its underclassmen last Wednesday — none of which I’m blaming Driscoll for.
Driscoll had to make a decision. Either he played his starters and risk his key players getting hurt for in a game that carried little meaning (Fenwick won the CCL Large with the victory), or he kept his starters out of action and healthy for Blackstone Valley this weekend. I’m all for competition and rivalries, but I would’ve picked the latter.
When St. Mary’s reflects on the 2018 season, what the Spartans will remember most is the run to the state championship game. Last week’s game against Fenwick isn’t one the Spartans will recollect in the grand scheme of things, regardless of the result. Nothing against the Catholic Central League, or any other league/conference in the state, but league/conference crowns don’t compare to winning the Super Bowl. Marblehead went undefeated in Northeastern Conference play but the Magicians were bounced in the first round of the state tournament. If the Magicians could choose between going undefeated in the NEC or going to Gillette for a shot at a state championship, I’m sure they’d take the latter. English had another great season and won the NEC’s Tier 3. If the Bulldogs could pick between winning their tier or heading to Gillette for a state championship, I’m sure they’d pick Gillette.
Although it’s tough to keep starters out of a rivalry game, injured or not, Driscoll had to make a tough choice (that’s what coaches do). He recognized that a shot at a state championship far outweighs winning a division title. And a Super Bowl isn’t an opportunity that comes around often. Some coaches would have elected to put their best players in a game of equal meaning, as St. John’s coach Brian St. Pierre did last week against Xaverian. But I can’t blame a coach who chooses not to do so.
From the Fenwick perspective, it’s tough to march into a rivalry game and play an opponent’s underclassmen. That’s not the challenge the Crusaders prepared for and it’s not the one they hoped for. When you win a league title, you’d like to do it without any strings attached. St. Mary’s can argue “you beat us but you didn’t beat our best team.” Fenwick can only shrug at that notion and hope to repeat its success next season, with St. Mary’s best on the field.
Some might say Fenwick chose to run up the score with a point total that’s more reminiscent of a basketball game. But if the Spartans recognized the game had little weight, Fenwick had the right to do as it pleased. Coach Dave Woods and his Crusaders battled plenty of injuries during their season too. They wanted to end the year on a positive.
What it comes down to is the MIAA’s new playoff format has taken the air out of Thanksgiving rivalries and forced coaches into awkward situations like Wednesday’s. In the past, coaches never had to think about starting underclassmen because it was a given they had to put their best out there in a rivalry game. Now we have rivalry games where coaches have to decide whether it’s worth it to risk injuries before a state championship. I’m curious if we’ll see athletes decide it’s not worth it to play in Thanksgiving games because they have college scholarships awaiting them. We’re already seeing a similar notion in college where players take themselves out of meaningless bowl games in an effort to stay healthy for the NFL combines.
Rivalry games should have more at stake than pride. And if we’re going to allow an 0-7 team into the state tournament, perhaps it’s worth reconsidering the format all together. Either the MIAA goes back to the old format where playoff bids are truly earned or it finds a way to make Thanksgiving rivalry games mean something. Playing for pride is something athletes should do day in and day out, in games and in practice. Thanksgiving rivalries should mean more than that.