ASTON >> Logan Markley wasn’t yet a starter two years ago, just a big sophomore still new to the rigors of varsity football. Anthony Ruggiero didn’t even need to be on varsity for the significance to click in his mind.
Even as high school neophytes, something about the pageantry of Thanksgiving football — the accentuated intensity of practice the week before, the enhanced excitement of game day — spoke to them. How, they weren’t yet sure. But in their individual see-it-and-you’ll-recognize-it moments, the importance found its way deep into their consciousness.
“Sophomore year (I got) a couple of plays,” the Sun Valley offensive tackle Markley said before a practice last week. “Just walking on the field, seeing all the fans screaming, I just had that very special feeling that you’re never going to forget. It’s something really special.”
“Started for me freshman year,” Ruggiero, a center, added. “Just coming in, the seniors that year showed me the mindset. During that week, I feel like something just snaps in the mentality, and it just changes. You start working harder, picking up the pace, because you realize this is going to be a big game, there’s going to be a big crowd, and it’s one of the most important games of the year.”
The vast majority of District One teams have collected the jerseys and set their gaze toward the winter season or offseason weight-room sessions. But for Sun Valley and Chichester, one special game remains. The 54th renewal of acquaintance between rivals — the 48th to fall on Thanksgiving — provides a chance at redemption that the players, particularly the veterans, treasure.
“That’s one more game that other people don’t have,” senior guard Bobby Koons said. “It’s a privilege. It takes more weight off our chest to have another game.”
There’s added poignancy for the Vanguards, who have been led all year by a senior-laden offensive line. The tri-captain core of Koons, Markley and Ruggiero has served as the bulwark for a youthful squad whose skill positions are occupied primarily by underclassmen. Some, like junior quarterback Gabe Boccella and junior running back Jon Kester, obtained valuable exposure as sophomores. That’s not quite the same thing as having multiple years of varsity experience to build on, and when the intensity ramps up on a chilly Thursday morning in late November, those youthful blemishes have a way of being exposed.
The Vanguards’ positives, though sparser than coach Ray Gionta would prefer, have mostly been generated from the line of scrimmage thanks to Koons, at 6-0, 220 pounds, Ruggiero (6-0, 200) and the imposing Markley (6-4, 250). The youthful talent around them has required time to bloom, a dynamic that has further steeled the bonds between the guys in the trenches.
“We’ve been really close as a line,” Markley said. “We’re all seniors, so we’ve all been playing with each other for a long time. Most of our backs are juniors and sophomores, so they don’t have all the experience. But they definitely have stepped up.”
Neither of the Thanksgiving combatants is having the year it hoped for. Each enters with three wins to its account, the only two league victories belonging to Sun Valley. The Vanguards (3-8) suffered two one-possession losses before breaking through in Week 6. The momentum of a two-game midseason winning streak was summarily dashed when the Ches-Mont schedule ramped up and furnished three straight losses by a combined score of 130-20.
A 34-0 win over Harriton Nov. 13 has righted the course ahead of the Turkey Day showdown.
Chichester (3-7) trudges to the holiday on a six-game skid, extinguishing the promise of a 3-1 start. The first five losses of the streak were dealt by Del Val opposition, while the potential Week 11 psyche boost in hosting Avon Grove sputtered to a 6-0 loss, the third shutout of Chichester has incurred in six outings.
The teams have alternated wins and losses since 2010, with Sun Valley blanking the Eagles, 27-0, last year. Though the all-time record bears a slight edge in Sun Valley’s favor, the recent history has been more decisive: From 1991-2010, Sun Valley won 16 of 20 meetings.
Chichester coach Ryan Smith is grateful for the chance at more time with his kids, not to mention the opportunity to add a flourish to an otherwise underwhelming season. When it comes time to the weight of the rivalry game, there’s little that Smith has to explain to his group.
“They’re pretty self-motivated,” said Smith, who’s coaching in his sixth Thanksgiving game. “They get the rivalry. These guys have been with me for four years and the juniors three, so they’ve been able to come though my mentality and the way they’ve embraced the game, and it’s impacted their outlook on the rivalry in a positive way.”
Part of that understanding of the rivalry is the height of stakes on both sides. And to hear the members of Sun Valley’s line describe it, the Eagles had better be prepared.
“It’s our last game, so we expect everyone to sell out every single play,” Markley said. “They have to give 110 percent every play. They have to.”
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