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Thanksgiving football: Crowley, Ridley warm to task of streaking to the finish

RIDLEY >> Sean Crowley doesn’t remember much about his first Thanksgiving Day football game other than how cold he was.

Crowley was in fourth grade, his older brother Mike a wide receiver/defensive back playing for Ridley as a freshman and embarking on what would end up as an All-Delco career. Sean played the role of shivering spectator that day.

“I remember they played here, it was freezing cold and I remember I watched all of them go out in short-sleeved shirts or no sleeves, and I was like, ‘these are the craziest dudes I’ve ever seen in my life,’” Sean recalled Monday. “I’m all bundled up with my mom and these guys are coming out and I remember just the hype. All the parents coming down, just supporting them, and the atmosphere was crazy.”

Times have changed, and it’s now Sean Crowley’s turn to be one of those crazy dudes, as the senior was in short sleeves at Monday’s relatively temperate practice. For the third time in his high school career, Crowley will be on the field with Ridley Thursday morning as it tangles with Interboro, the 49th incarnation of the Thanksgiving Day rivalry.

For seniors like Crowley, there’s more at stake than just capping a career on home turf with a fourth straight win in the rivalry, ensuring they’ll never taste defeat against the Bucs. Likewise on the other side, it’s not just a class’ position for posterity in the balance. Both teams see Thanksgiving as a chance to etch some definition into their elusive identities this season.

Ridley (6-4) is acutely aware of its standing in the select few Delco programs to see 2017 pass without a playoff berth, the Green Raiders finishing 17th for the 16-team field in District 1 Class 6A, a mere power-ranking point behind final qualifier Spring-Ford. That has left the Green Raiders in dry dock for 27 days, which Crowley said has them feeling almost like this is the preseason again.

In pondering the legacy these Green Raiders leave in Dave Wood’s second year at the helm, and after an 11-win campaign in 2016, the question is clear: Is Ridley the team that started 2-4, capped by a five-touchdown pummeling by neighborhood rival Springfield? Or is it the squad that won its last four games in convincing fashion, culminating in a Week 10 win at Upper Darby, 36-22, with playoff hopes optimistically on the line?

“Coming off that big W and finding out we couldn’t make (playoffs) hurt,” Crowley said of the Upper Darby aftermath. “But every practice since the day we found out we couldn’t make it, we just worked harder and harder. We hit harder, we learned more and now, Wood prepared us to play this game exactly like it is our last game, and we’re playing like a unit.”

Crowley and seniors like Kamal Richardson, who has rushed for 937 yards, are part of the core that steadied the Green Raiders after that disastrous start. They also provide the primary impetus for Thursday’s tilt.

“When you’re 2-4, it’s easy to give up,” Richardson said. “But we said, hey, they’re tough losses. Haverford was a close game, they were all tough games. So we were just saying, ‘we’re not giving up.’ That motivated us. … That’s one of the biggest motivators because we know as seniors, this is our last chance to go out with a win.”

Interboro (5-6) is in a similar boat, seeking to avoid a losing season, something that has only happened once in that last decade and a half (2014).

The Bucs never really found their way this season. Even a three-game winning streak in the Del Val came by a combined 11 points, hardly the usually self-assured growth that has characterized recent Interboro squads. The Bucs allowed 83 points in their last two games, with Academy Park hanging 50 in the regular-season finale and eventual District 1 Class 4A champion Pottsgrove handling them, 33-8, in the semifinal.

“It’s important to everyone in the community,” running back/linebacker Kalie Kuyateh said. “There’s a lot of people there. … It was just fun, just something about it that gets the adrenaline pumping. It’s an upbeat game.”

Regardless of the state in which the teams enter Thursday, the experience often reigns supreme on the day. Richardson is familiar with Turkey Day football from his time on the Brookhaven Jets playing against the Chester Panthers.

Crowley and his older brother are first-generation participants in the Ridley tradition. Their dad, Mike, was an All-Delco defensive back at Cardinal O’Hara who graduated in 1980 and grew up in Swarthmore.

But Sean has thoroughly integrated into the traditions. And with the unique baggage each team brings this year, the importance of those rituals is heightened.

“We’ve got a lot to prove,” Crowley said. “We’ve got to prove we can play an entire game without quitting. We’ve got to prove that we can play as a unit. We’ve got to prove that we should’ve been the playoff team that the town wanted, but to me, this is the district championship, state championship, on Thursday.”

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