We have been without one of the great football traditions in Rutland for about a decade now. The storied Rutland High vs. Mount St. Joseph Academy rivalry was one that stirred the passions of alumni of both schools and went well beyond the gridiron.
It brought graduates back to town from all corners of the country. It once included a snake dance through the city streets. The crowds were immense. Parties and gatherings were sprinkled liberally throughout the city.
It was something people cared about.
Then, things changed. MSJ dropped down to Division III and the game against the Division I Raiders no longer made sense. Now, MSJ does not have football.
There was some talk I overheard at the Vermont State Softball Tournament about the possibility of the St. Johnsbury-Lyndon football rivalry being in trouble due to being noncompetitive of late.
This fall, the Hilltoppers will make the short trip over to Lyndon for the 115th meeting, an event that brings the Northeast Kingdom together with all the atmosphere that once pervaded the Rutland-MSJ game.
Don’t look for Vermont’s longest playing rivalry to go the way of the Rutland-MSJ game despite the gloom and doom that naturally surfaces when one of the teams becomes dominant for a stretch.
It’s only natural for people to sound the death knell with all the unfortunate things we have had happen on the Vermont football landscape recently.
Tuesday, new Lyndon Athletic Director Eric Berry was sitting in his office and looking across the hall at a banner presented to the school proclaiming the St. Johnsbury-Lyndon rivalry as the No. 1 high school football rivalry in the entire Northeast. It came from USA Today as the result of a poll conducted by the national newspaper seven years ago.
“I think every rivalry is certainly cyclical,” Berry said. “There was a time in the 1990s when Lyndon won the game eight of 11 years.
“I am very enthusiastic about the future we have here with our football program.”
“I do not believe this is following the pattern of the Rutland-MSJ game,” St. Johnsbury football coach Rich Alercio said.
“If you look at the 114 years, there have been a lot of years where one team has won four of five in a row.
“Lyndon had a great group of eighth-graders. We have had a very strong group lately. We have had great quarterbacks and a lot of studs. But our numbers are not going to be as strong now. It’s a pendulum.”
Berry likes the direction the Viking football program is about to take under fourth-year coach Chad Simpson.
Alercio’s reference point is his native New Jersey, where longstanding football rivalries are special.
He thinks the Northeast Kingdom rivalry is just as vibrant as those in New Jersey but in a different way.
“In New Jersey, rivalries run deep as well,” Alercio said, pointing to the state’s oldest between Vineland and Mike Trout’s alma mater Millville as an example.
Millville and Vineland started playing in 1893, one year before the Vikes and Hilltoppers launched their rivalry.
“In New Jersey, the game is the thing. With St. Johnsbury and Lyndon, it is about the parade and the amount of alumni coming back. Just everything else,” Alercio said. “It is a great event. The whole weekend.”
There have been so many great games and moments in the Kingdom’s 114-game history.
It’s hard to beat the 99th game when Brian Richwein booted a field goal with 35 seconds left to give Lyndon a 10-9 lead.
Time to celebrate.
But as ESPN analyst Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast, my friend.”
Ethan Paquette kicked a 29-yard field goal with 18 ticks left on the clock to give the Hilltoppers a 12-10 upset victory.
Vermont history buffs got a taste of the fervor of the Kingdom series when Lyndon students Kyle Wilson, Kendra Rocha, Whitney Hurst, Hillary Gray, Shannon Casey and Tony Powers constructed an exhibit of the game in commemoration of the approaching 100th contest.
That exhibit was on display in Tunbridge at the Vermont History Expo, an event that unfortunately has gone the way of the Rutland-MSJ game.
The Vermont History Expo was one of the state’s greatest summer events, one I made a point to attend every year. I hope it comes back but that’s another story.
Paquette’s field goal was not the only fantastic finish. There have been many including David Brill’s PAT with only 25 seconds left in the 1992 edition that gave the Vikings a 13-12 victory.
Berry described the Northeast Kingdom’s great event as a “rite of passage.”
Something that has been around since 1894 and has given so many people a storehouse of memories is worth preserving.
I think there are many more memories to be made for a long time to come.