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Owen J. Roberts, Pottstown to discontinue Thanksgiving Day rivalry in 2018

POTTSTOWN >> The oldest Thanksgiving Day tradition in the Pioneer Athletic Conference is coming to an end. The annual rivalry game between Owen J. Roberts and Pottstown is being discontinued after this season’s contest at Grigg Memorial Field. 

The announcement was made Thursday afternoon via a press release from the Pottstown School District.

“After the evaluating the effect of new PIAA rules regulating the length of the football season and number of competitions allowed, along with the present structure of our Pioneer Athletic  Conference playoff system, the Pottstown School District football program will participate in a Thanksgiving Day game for the last time this year,” said Stephen Rodriguez, Pottstown’s Superintendent of Schools. “After 59 years of rivalry with the Owen J. Roberts School District, this tradition has been a wonderful part of both communities. However, after changes were made to playoff rules in the PIAA, and the new impact to students, the time has come for change.”

Owen J. Roberts was informed of Pottstown’s decision to dissolve the end-of-season game also Thursday.

Fans were bundled up to watch the traditional OJR/Pottstown football game on Thanksgiving day in 2012. (Photo by Kevin Hoffman, The Mercury)

The discontinuation of the PAC’s longest-running rivalry comes at a time when many programs are moving away from the annual rivalry game. Schedules on Pa. Prep Live show only 13 Thanksgiving Day games this season, with 11 or less expected for 2018. There were four Thanksgiving Day games in the PAC in 2009 (Phoenixville vs. Spring-Ford ended in 2013; Boyertown vs. Upper Perkiomen ended in 2011 and Pottsgrove and St. Pius X ended in 2009), and one will stand after this season — newcomers Norristown and Upper Merion having revived their end-of-season rivalry game in 2015 after a 16-year hiatus. The structure of the season changed following the PIAA’s reconfiguration two seasons ago, which established a six-classification system and effectively eliminated a week of the preseason. Schools now start the season a week early, end a week early, and according to sources, have been warned by the PIAA not to schedule contingency games at the end of the season. Therefore, if a school fails to make the district playoffs, there are four open weeks between Week 10 and a Thanksgiving Day tilt.

For Pottstown Athletic Director Steve Anspach and OJR head coach Rich Kolka, that’s just way too much time. “The net effect to our students is that they go 25 days or more without playing a game,” Anspach said. “They cannot begin winter sports when almost every other athlete in the state can, and are put in a dangerous situation of competing with students that have had the proper amount of time to prepare. It is not safe or fair to the football players who have very little to no expectation of playing in the varsity lineup on Thanksgiving to practice for over three weeks.”

“I understand why it’s being discontinued,” Kolka said. “With the discontinuation of contingency games and the season ending a week earlier, there’s too much time in between. It’s not good for player safety. I can understand why it’s being eliminated, however, it’s a fun game to play in.

“We’re fortunate to have an energetic staff,” Kolka said. “We do some team bonding events as well to keep the kids into it, but at the same time you’re not playing a game for three weeks. My first year, we scored then we tried to line up for an extra point and we were offside three times in a row. You’re not as sharp as you would be if you had kept playing.”

Pottstown Trojans celebrate Thanksgiving Day victory over OJR by hoisting the series trophy overhead. (Digital First Media File Photo)

Pottstown and Owen J. Roberts’ Thanksgiving Day rivalry started in 1959 and has gone uninterrupted over the past 59 years. OJR holds a 36-21-1 advantage and are winners of seven of the past nine contests. Despite the news, both schools are open to keep the rivalry open in the future, potentially setting up an early-season crossover game. 

“Our school districts have changed a lot in the past six decades but our love of the game remains the same,” Rodriguez said. “We look forward to the possibility of rivalry in a different form in the future.”

But for now, it’ll be one last Thanksgiving Day tilt and one last game for the trophy. 

“It’s sad to see this go,” Kolka said. “There weren’t too many left. Our players liked to play in them, everyone who has gone to OJR has played in that game. Other people can relate to it, the league has changed, divisions have changed, but through all of that, all of our players hold one thing in common: they all played on Thanksgiving.”

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