From The Editor
It was one of the great games of last season, with Woodstown overcoming a 14-0 deficit to defeat Salem, 20-14 in their annual Thanksgiving matchup.
This is a rivalry that dates back to 1911 (and no, I didn’t cover that first game). It was the 112th meeting.
The 113th will not be played on Thanksgiving.
In an ever growing trend, these two long-time rivals are moving their Thanksgiving game. This year’s game will be staged Oct. 1 at Salem.
The reason so many schools have either moved or canceled Thanksgiving games is due to the playoffs and quite frankly it’s hard to blame them.
This will be the first year of state playoffs. Before that, teams could only go as far as sectional champions and in the last few years the sectional champs played in what was termed a regional game between the South Jersey and Central Jersey champions.
Woodstown and Salem were both involved in sectional championship games the week before last year’s Thanksgiving game. Salem beat Paulsboro, 13-12, in the Central Jersey Group 1 final, while Woodstown lost to Woodbury, 8-6, in the SJ Group 1 final.
In addition, Salem had to play Woodbury the week after the Thanksgiving game in the regional matchup. (The Rams ended up beating Woodbury, 34-8 in that game).
Both Woodstown and Salem deserved a lot of credit for bouncing back. Woodstown bounced back from a championship game defeat to win and Salem rebounded after losing to Woodstown to also emerge victorious.
Yet it’s not easy balancing Thanksgiving with playoff games.
So Woodstown-Salem is the latest casualty. Both teams will continue playing and it will still be a big game, but there is something about the aura of playing on Thanksgiving that will be missing.
Neither school should be criticized. This is just how football in 2022 is.
“You are going to miss the tradition and what comes with the Thanksgiving game that morning and the environment around the game,” Woodstown coach John Adams said.
“(Salem) coach (Montrey Wright) and I sat down with our administrations and our athletic directors and we really took a hard look at what was best for the players,” Adams said.
This was such a big issue that the coaches also met with alumni to receive feedback. One of the biggest concerns was to keep the rivalry going, even if not on Thanksgiving. This year the task is easy since they both are in the West Jersey Football League Diamond Division. The WJFL changes schedules every two years and even if they aren’t in the same division, there are provisions to keep playing.
“I think that eased everybody’s mind that we would keep playing,” Adams said.
Salem’s Wright agreed that this was the right decision to make.
“Me being a player in that game and being part of that culture, it is something I will miss, but times are changing so you have to adapt with change,” Wright said.
One other thing that hurts teams that play on Thanksgiving is that they miss out on getting power points for the sectional playoffs, which are over by then.
There is also the problem that even if a team makes the playoffs and is eliminated in the first round. This year the first round of the playoffs is scheduled for the weekend of Oct. 28. Thanksgiving isn’t until Nov. 24. That is a long wait.
So there are plenty of difficulties in keeping Thanksgiving football alive, but there are still a number of South Jersey schools that feel it is worth continuing the tradition.
Nowhere is the tradition deeper than the Millville-Vineland Thanksgiving matchup, the longest in the state. That rivalry began in 1893. This year will be the 151st edition (sometimes the teams have played more than once a year). Since that initial meeting, the teams have only not played two years 1905 and 1926.
Not all have been on Thanksgiving. For instance, in 2020 due to COVID, they played the Saturday after Thanksgiving, but most have been on the holiday.
Last year Millville won the SJ Group 4 title the week before playing Vineland on Thanksgiving. After beating Vineland, Millville, like Salem, had to play a regional game the next week and defeated Winslow Township, 45-35.
So Millville was able to overcome the difficulty of playing on Thanksgiving but for the Thunderbolts it was well worth the effort.
Don’t look for Millville-Vineland to move the date of the game.
“Millville is big on tradition and I love the tradition and I am all for keeping it on Thanksgiving,” said first-year Millville coach Bert Ayala, who was an assistant the previous five years at the school. “The kids love it, the town loves it and I don’t foresee that game moving.”
There are still several Thanksgiving rivalries that will be played on the holiday, including Haddonfield-Haddon Heights, which dates back to 1902.
However, more and more schools are not playing on that date. For instance this year Shawnee and Lenape, which have been meeting since 1971, are not playing on Thanksgiving.
It’s all part of the new landscape. Even before state playoffs, the addition of NJSIAA sectional playoffs, dating back to 1974, started taking some of the sizzle out of Thanksgiving.
There are still many diehards who will attend a Thanksgiving game, and still get the special feeling, the kind that Woodstown and Salem provided last year and that’s great.
So here is one suggestion to South Jersey football fans – enjoy the remaining Thanksgiving games that are left instead of lamenting which ones aren’t played anymore.