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The top 10 Thanksgiving high school football games of the past decade

Captains from Swampscott and Marblehead lined up for the coin flip before their thrilling matchup in 2019.
Captains from Swampscott and Marblehead lined up for the coin flip before their thrilling matchup in 2019.Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe/The Boston Globe

High school football on Thanksgiving has become a constant for Massachusetts residents. A state known for its history and tradition, it is home to some of the oldest rivalries in the country, some of which played through the Great Depression and two World Wars.

But 2020 marks a non-negotiable hiatus for all official gridiron contests because of the coronavirus pandemic. With no games on tap, it’s a good time to look back on a decade of packed stands, exciting finishes, and proud communities in our top 10 Thanksgiving games since 2010 (in chronological order).

2010: Needham 20, Wellesley 17 (OT) — In the 123rd edition of the nation’s oldest public school rivalry, Needham trailed, 14-0, through three quarters. The Rockets coaching staff shook things up by moving senior quarterback Kevin Brennan to wide receiver and bringing junior quarterback Drew Burnett off the bench.

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Burnett connected with Brennan multiple times and found junior Mark Riley for a 20-yard touchdown with nine minutes remaining, then Needham tied it up on a 6-yard run from Sam Nickles.

The game headed to overtime at Needham’s Memorial Field and Wellesley took a 17-14 lead on a 32-yard field goal from Tucker Morgan. With Brennan back at quarterback, the Rockets were facing third and 12 when the senior rolled right and found Riley for a touchdown to win it, sending fans on the hillside into jubilation and tying a program record by finishing the season with a 9-2 record.

Needham defensive coordinator and current head coach Doug Kopsco: “We’ve had some amazing games in this storied rivalry, but I’d never seen anything like it. We knew we’d have to pull a rabbit out of the hat, and we relied on two of the best athletes ever to come through this program, and they connected. It was really a special moment, not just for the players, but for the whole community.”

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2013: Boston English 14, Boston Latin 12 — Boston English’s Class of 2013 had taken its lumps, allowing 49 points per game in Thanksgiving defeats to Latin in 2010, 2011, and 2012. English was trailing, 12-8, in 2013 and seemed to be on its way to a 16th straight loss to its rival when senior quarterback Emmanuel Almonte orchestrated an improbable 11-play, 78-yard scoring drive in the final minutes at Harvard Stadium.

Almonte hit tight end Ruben Pena-Sanchez for 6 yards to convert on fourth and 5, and had the Eagles marching into Latin territory when a holding call backed them up to the 44-yard line with 18 seconds left. First-year coach Brian Vaughan (now head coach at Lynn Classical) called his final timeout and set up a double pass from Almonte to wide receiver Dejour Releford, who hit a streaking Jerome Penn for 37 yards.

After sprinting down to clock the ball, Almonte scrambled to evade a sack, then hit Releford for a 7-yard touchdown as time expired, giving English just its third win over Latin since 1967.

Boston English's Jerome Penn (left) makes a key reception to set up the winning score.
Boston English's Jerome Penn (left) makes a key reception to set up the winning score.Jay Connor

According to Vaughan, the first two days of school after the break were marked by a parade and celebration of a rare victory in the nation’s oldest continuous public school rivalry.

Former Boston English coach Brian Vaughan: “It’s always an uphill battle against Boston Latin. I went to Lynn English and I thought [Lynn] versus Lynn Classical was the cream of the crop, but when I got to Boston English, I saw how much that rivalry means. I was excited to be a part of a day that will go down in history for Boston English.”

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2013: Reading 44, Stoneham 36 (3 OT) — Coming back from a 24-point deficit is tough enough, but doing it on a frigid day with winds over 30 miles per hour? That’s nearly impossible. Unless you have a senior quarterback like Reading’s Drew Belcher, who would go on to star at Maine and earn an invite to Arizona Cardinals training camp in 2019.

Reading trailed Stoneham, 30-6, heading into the fourth quarter of the 78th installment of their Thanksgiving rivalry. Belcher provided two touchdown passes to Will Murray and Reading recovered an onside kick and a botched squib kick to set up a Belcher touchdown run. Then the Rockets converted their third straight 2-point attempt to force overtime.

The rivals went scoreless in the first extra period, traded touchdowns in the second, and Belcher ran for his third score of the day in the third. Liam Kenneally, a senior linebacker who would go on to win two NESCAC titles at Trinity College, provided an interception to seal it.

Liam Kenneally: “Anytime you have Drew on your team playing QB, you have a chance. He was unbelievable, throwing 50-yard passes into 40-mile-per-hour winds. Just dropping dimes. He really took it by the reins and brought us back.”

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Drew Belcher: “I had never lost to Stoneham in three years prior, and that being my last game, and Reading being such a successful program, I wouldn’t want to end it with a loss. So it was pretty important to make that comeback and finish on a good note. It was probably the craziest game I’ve been a part of.”

2014: Melrose 15, Wakefield 14 — The 98th meeting between these rivals was delayed until the Friday after Thanksgiving because of a snowstorm. But when he arrived at Wakefield, Melrose coach Tim Morris was surprised to see the field had been cleared only inside the hash marks, with the sidelines mired in ankle-deep snow.

Melrose’s offense sputtered in the conditions, and Wakefield jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the final game coached by 18-year veteran Mike Boyages. In the second half, Melrose junior quarterback Jake Karelas connected on touchdowns to sophomore Mike Pedrini and senior Colby Andrews to make it a 14-13 game with about three minutes remaining.

With his team playing just five six days after a physical playoff win over Tewksbury and scheduled to face Dartmouth in the Division 4 Super Bowl the following weekend, Morris decided to go for 2, and Pedrini ran in the conversion out of a wildcat formation.

The Wakefield gridiron was a snowy mess on Thanksgiving in 2014.
The Wakefield gridiron was a snowy mess on Thanksgiving in 2014.The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Melrose coach Tim Morris: “We had to play eight days later in the Super Bowl, so I said, ‘Let’s just go for 2 here.’ We’ve always had the philosophy that if you’re playing football, you’re playing to win. And it’s all hands on deck for a game like that. That was every bit as courageous of a victory as we had at any point that year.”

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2015: Milton 27, Braintree 25 — David Brundage had never caught a pass in a varsity game prior to the 85th edition of this Thanksgiving rivalry. But when Milton lost several key players to injury, including two-way star Kendall Van Allen, Brundage stepped up.

Braintree capitalized by scoring 19 straight points to turn a 21-6 halftime deficit in to a 25-21 lead halfway through the fourth quarter.

Milton quarterback Mike Fallon, who is now a senior at UMass, provided a key 18-yard scramble and Mac Feeney rumbled for 17 yards to set up the Wildcats in the red zone with 30 seconds remaining. From the 13-yard line, Fallon hit Brundage for the fourth time that day, providing the winning score with eight seconds remaining.

Afterward, Brundage told the Globe that his aunt, Denise Allen, had died of multiple myeloma that very morning. His inspired performance helped Milton secure its first league title in 52 years and eventually set a program record with 12 wins.

David Brundage: “We were pretty confident heading in, but seeing Kendall go down was a big blow. But the team [coach Steve Dembowski] established was about next man up, and I knew what I had to do. I remember after catching the [winning touchdown], looking to the upper left of the stands where my whole family sat, and locking eyes with them. It was a really special moment for everyone.”

Milton coach Steve Dembowski: “That was definitely a special year in the community and it kind of catapulted our expectations going forward.”

2016: Woburn 22, Winchester 21 — In his 47 years on the sideline for Woburn, Rocky Nelson had become such an icon that his rivals gave him the utmost respect in his final Thanksgiving game.

Winchester coach Wally Dembowski had his team well-prepared in the 112th installment of this rivalry, and went for a game-winning 2-point conversion after his quarterback, Liam Fitzpatrick, rushed for a touchdown to cut the Woburn lead to 22-21 with 33 seconds left. But senior Tyler Hayden, who ran for three touchdowns, including the go-ahead score with 5:18 remaining, led a defensive effort to deny Fitzpatrick’s rush. Then the Tanners sprinted to Nelson and lifted their retiring coach onto their shoulders.

Woburn coach Rocky Nelson went out a winner in 2016.
Woburn coach Rocky Nelson went out a winner in 2016.The Boston Globe

Rocky Nelson, who died in 2018, told the Globe after the game: “I grew up here, I’ve played here. I taught physical education for 37 years, I’ve been head coach for 31. I was an assistant for 16. I’ve been here my entire life, I raised my family here. I love Woburn, that’s all I can tell you.”

Winchester coach Wally Dembowski: It was very emotional that day. Rocky was one of the great characters in the state and he cared about the game. Kids on our side were thinking about what we could do to win, with respect to Rocky. I could only imagine what he was going through and you could see he was choked up when the news outlets were interviewing him.”

2016: Whitman-Hanson 29, Abington 28 — With his team down, 21-0, at halftime of the 106th edition of this rivalry, Whitman-Hanson coach Mike Driscoll told his kids that they would come out and score, recover an onside kick, and score again. It turned out to be a prescient prediction, but the Green Wave responded to open a 28-14 on a 55-yard touchdown pass from Jack Maguire to Mark Kilmain.

The Panthers kept coming, with Ethan Phelps converting a 1-yard touchdown, before they regained possession at their own 25-yard line with 3:30 remaining in the fourth quarter. Phelps capped another drive with a 4-yard touchdown run and the Panthers appeared to tie the game with 1:47 left after converting the extra point. But Abington was offsides, and Driscoll decided instead to go for 2. Michael Connors converted the try with a rush. Defensive end Marquise Williams-Brees sealed the win with an interception.

Whitman-Hanson coach Mike Driscoll: “Almost all our starters were sophomores, so it was kind of a growing-up experience. I’ve been off and on part of this game for 25 years and it’s probably one of the most exciting games in that rivalry from our perspective. There were about 5,000 people there. Most people leave at halftime, but they stuck around for this one.”

2016: Lynn Classical 21, Lynn English 20 — During the week leading up to the 103rd Thanksgiving game between the crosstown rivals, Classical special teams coach Rob Sirois watched his kick-return team goofing around toward the end of practice. They were experimenting with laterals and a reverse handoff, which Sirois thought intriguing enough to install as a formal play.

When English quarterback Matt Sevarance’s 21-yard touchdown strike to Jon Kosmas gave the Bulldogs a 20-15 advantage with three seconds remaining, Classical coach Tim Phelps thought he might as well call the play Sirois developed.

First, English stopped the return and its fans rushed the field. But after a penalty forced a re-kick, Classical’s Melvin Nieves received the ball, faked a handoff to Marcus Rivera, scrambled around, and eventually gave it to Rivera, who dodged tacklers and sprinted 83 yards down the sideline for an improbable victory.

Classical coach Tim Phelps: “It’s certainly one of the better moments I’ve been a part of. I look back on it fondly and someone usually sends me the video every year before Thanksgiving. Both sides had disappointing win totals that year, but it’s one of those things, if you win on Thanksgiving, you can check that box.”

English coach Chris Carroll: “I’ve never seen an ending quite like that. And that was my first loss against Classical as a player or coach. There was a lot of heartache the way the game ended, but you commend them for a tremendous effort.”

2018: Foxborough 35, Mansfield 33 (3 OT) — One of the most epic matchups between the rivals took place at a venue that predates the rivalry: Fenway Park. Meeting for the 88th time — Fenway had been open for 13 years when the teams first met, in 1925 — the Hockomock League battle started out innocently enough, with Mansfield carrying a 6-0 lead into the half as snow flurries whipped around the ballpark.

The offenses took over from there, however, with Foxborough going up 8 in the fourth quarter on a Liam Foley 57-yard pass to Shayne Kerrigan. But Mansfield answered with 0:02 left in regulation on a Khristian Conner 5-yard pass from Jack Moussette and subsequent 2-point conversion run from Cincere Gill to force overtime, the game knotted at 21 apiece.

Both teams scored in the first extra sessions but failed on 2-point conversion tries. The defenses each made stops in the second overtime before Foley threw his second touchdown pass of the evening, a 9-yard strike to Mike Luong in the third OT. Foley then connected with Rob Fay on the 2-point try to go up, 35-27, and while Gill came back with a 10-yard touchdown run for the Hornets, they failed to convert on the 2-point try.

Foxborough coach Jack Martinelli: “In the 38 years I’ve been involved in the rivalry, that was probably the high point of all Thanksgiving games for us, that’s for sure. It was a game that we went in as underdogs against a very talented team. I watched the kids play harder and better than they had ever done before. For the senior class, that was their legacy game.”

2019: Marblehead 22, Swampscott 16 — Swampscott had already punched its ticket to the Division 5 Super Bowl, but coach Bob Serino played all of his starters in the hopes of snapping a six-year Thanksgiving losing streak to Marblehead.

Swampscott seemed on its way when it recovered an onside kick right after Graham Inzana hit Andrew Augustin for a 17-yard touchdown pass to make it a 14-13 game. Inzana set up Thomas Frisoli for a 24-yard field goal to make it 16-14 Swampscott with 46 seconds remaining.

Sophomore quarterback Jack Robertson led Marblehead back with Will Twadell making a circus catch to get the Magicians into Swampscott territory. A.J. Russo then broke away from double coverage and Robertson hit him for a 21-yard score with 16 seconds left. Swampscott rebounded to defeat Amherst-Pelham, 21-0, in the Super Bowl nine days later.

Marblehead coach Jim Rudloff: “The comeback really turned our year around. Those players had gone through a tough year but played with pride.”

Rudloff said to the Salem News after the game, “It’s been special for me because obviously my son [Declan] is one of the seniors. I got to watch these kids every single game in youth. I’m going to miss them, but it’s been great.”