By DAN TOMASELLO
WAKEFIELD — The Thanksgiving Day showdown between the Lynnfield and North Reading football teams has become a rite of passage for the young men and women who will be taking the field and cheering for their respective teams. The 56th annual contest between the two rivals will be no exception to the rule.
The Lynnfield and North Reading Rotary Clubs held their annual pre-Thanksgiving luncheon at the Sheraton Colonial in Wakefield on Thursday, Nov. 20. The luncheon included Rotary Club members from both towns, school officials from both towns and the coaching staff from the two highly regarded football programs.
Lynnfield Rotary Club President Matthew Kimball served as the master of ceremonies during the luncheon. He said the Thanksgiving football game between the Pioneers and Hornets is one of his favorite events of the year even though it “brings back some good memories and some bad memories.”
Kimball said that he and his older brother, Jason, both lost their high school games while they were seniors. He recalled a story when his younger brother, Luke, was bragging that he was going to win his last game as a Pioneer during his senior year.
“Luke was ragging on us mercilessly,” said Kimball. “He was calling us losers, and we couldn’t say anything because we lost. It turns out that Luke lost too. We have never let him forget that day and we keep ragging on him for it.”
Kimball also had a message for the Lynnfield and North Reading football captains in attendance.
“This is something you will never forget,” said Kimball. “This is a great game and for some of you, this will be your last game. You will never forget it. I want to wish both teams good luck.”
North Reading football coach Jeff Wall personally thanked the two Rotary Clubs for holding the Rotary football luncheon. He joked that he was sick while writing his speech, which he said was made possible by “chugging” Nyquil.” He also joked that he was forced to fend off his 10-year old daughter’s attacking stuffed animals while writing the speech.
“I can never watch Madagascar again,” Wall joked.
Wall said he loves the Rotary football luncheon and looks forward to it every year. He personally thanked North Reading school administrators for “giving me this opportunity to work with these young men every day.”
“I love what I do,” said Wall. “I love teaching, but I love being out on the practice field with these guys.”
Wall also thanked the North Reading High School band and color guard, and said he enjoys watching them both perform. He also noted the NRHS band won a medal of merit at MICCA competitions in Lowell and Wakefield recently.
The North Reading football coach also congratulated the NRHS cheerleaders, particularly captains Mackenzie Sturdevant and Mikayala Diflatzi, for having a great season.
“They are truly a gifted group of young ladies,” said Wall. “They do well in the classroom as well as in the gymnasium and on the field. They demonstrate all of the qualities educators hope to instill into their students. They have a great work ethic, they are goal orientated, are caring and compassionate.”
Wall also thanked North Reading football captains Austin Bradley, Cole Hughes and Nic O’Connell for having a great season.
“The reason the program has turned around is because of their hard work and dedication,” said Wall. “We struggled for a while, but they were able to turn things around because of their work ethic. They show up every day and give it their all.”
Wall said he knows in his heart that the three captains have a bright future ahead of them.
“I know they are going to become great role models in the community,” said Wall. “They are going to become great husbands and great fathers. They have made a difference in my life and I know they are going to make a difference going forward. They are just a great group of guys.”
Wall said he doesn’t stress wins and losses to his players, but said he encourages them to always give their best effort.
“We don’t ask them to do anything out of the ordinary other than play with pride, play with courage, play with heart and play with character,” said Wall. “The only thing we ask is that they give everything that they have.”
Wall also encouraged the football and cheerleading captains from both teams in addition to the Lynnfield and North Reading band members to take a moment this week to relish their accomplishments and remember this moment for the rest of their lives.
“Enjoy the next week because you will never have this moment again,” said Wall. “Enjoy every moment you have together this week because there is going to come a time when it’s all over. It’s not how high you climb the mountain; it’s knowing how you got there. Everyone is so goal driven to get to the next challenge. It’s awesome to have goals, but you should enjoy what you have.”
Wall also wished Lynnfield head coach Neal Weidman and the Pioneers well during this year’s Thanksgiving battle.
“Neal and I go back a long way,” said Wall. “I wish the players the best of luck and I hope they play with the greatness in their hearts.”
Weidman personally thanked the Lynnfield cheerleaders, including captain Alexa Distefano, for having a great season. He also thanked Lynnfield High School band director Tom Westmoreland and band president Paul DiRico for contributing the LHS’ school spirit.
“I want to thank them for their support throughout the entire season,” said Weidman. “We really appreciate it.”
Echoing Wall’s comments, Weidman personally thanked the two Rotary Clubs for hosting the annual pre-Thanksgiving luncheon. He said the captains from both teams look forward to the luncheon every year.
“Not only are they getting turkey dinner a week early, but they also don’t have to be in class right now,” Weidman joked.
Weidman personally thanked Lynnfield school administrators for giving him the opportunity to not only coach the Pioneers, but also teach at LHS.
“It’s a great place to work,” said Weidman.
Weidman noted this fall has been an incredibly successful year for LHS athletics. He congratulated the volleyball team for winning the Division 3 North title for the fifth straight year and congratulated the girls’ soccer team for advancing to the Division 3 state finals.
“You can see the kids in school really rallying around each other, which is great to see,” said Weidman. “We are really thankful for all of that.”
Weidman congratulated Wall and the Hornets for having a great season.
“They put together a good team every year,” said Weidman. “We always have a battle on Thanksgiving. The games are close every year and the reason is we have similar types of kids, and North Reading and Lynnfield are similar types of towns.”
Weidman said it has been a pleasure coaching Pioneer captains David Adams, Jonathan Knee, Cameron Rondeau and Dan Sullivan this fall.
“What makes good coaches is good players,” said Weidman. “We have been very fortunate to have had a really good run of good players, and that has been no different this year. We are very fortunate to have kids who are committed to the sport, the team as a whole and who always try to make themselves better personally.”
Weidman also noted the captains are a microcosm of the team because their average GPA is 3.75 and their average SAT score is 1960, which prompted a round of applause from the luncheon’s attendees.
“This is why Jeff and I do this every year,” said Weidman. “Everything we do for kids is important.”
Weidman said he’s concerned about the current state of high school athletics, particularly in regards to concussion issues and the rise of AAU teams that “don’t have anything to do with high school athletics.”
“I don’t think it will ever get to the point where there won’t be any high school athletics because its not just about playing sports and winning games,” said Weidman. “There is a reason why it’s called educational athletics. It’s about something that is bigger than yourself, which is the most important thing. It’s part of the high school experience and its important.”
Weidman recalled a story about how a 71-year old man visited LHS last Thursday after making the trek from Stowe. The man was a member of the 1960 LHS football team that went 9-0, and he gave Weidman a card to congratulate the Pioneers on starting the season with a 10-0 record.
“I talked to him for five minutes and you could tell this was one of the best experiences of his life,” said Weidman. “This is important because you want the kids who are playing for you to have a good experience.”
Weidman also said football is a valuable experience for young men. He received an email from a freshman’s mother recently, who told Weidman her son’s “time management skills have skyrocketed and he earned high honors for the first time.” Weidman said the mother attributed her son’s academic achievements to football.
“Any extracurricular activity is part of having a positive high school experience,” said Weidman. “It’s about the relationships that have been built.”