Brayden Champlin sported blue for school on Wednesday, which was dubbed Bulldog Pride Day at Dunn’s Corners Elementary.
The fourth-grader couldn’t think of a better way to back Westerly High School than wearing its colors.
“I really want to support Westerly,” the 9-year-old said, “so they’ll win this year. I want them to win because Stonington and Westerly are huge rivals.”
About six miles away, through Westerly’s downtown, across the river into Pawcatuck and on to Stonington High School, a small group of 3- and 4-year-olds took in Stonington High School’s pep rally Wednesday — a spectacle of color held in The Bear’s Lair.
“We want to integrate the preschoolers in all of the high school activities,” said Christine Wilson, a Stonington integrated preschool teacher. Her preschool students attend school in the high school building. “We wanted them to be a part of the school spirit.”
For Westerly’s and Stonington’s youngest residents to the oldest, Thanksgiving means family, tradition and local high school football, though part of that tradition, the Wednesday evening downtown rally, was canceled early in the day because of concerns over high winds and heavy rain.
This morning, both communities will all but shut down for the holiday and the game at Donald Palmer Field on Stonington High’s campus. The annual Turkey Day game is said to be the longest-running Thanksgiving Day rivalry in the country, though that is more myth than truth. In the region alone, the Norwich Free Academy-New London High (formerly known as Bulkely High School) game dates to 1875, and nearly 100 other rivalries started before the Bulldogs and Bears first met in 1911.
Still, this is our rivalry, and 1911 is a long time ago.
And the importance of this football tradition is lost on no one who calls either community home. This year, it’s even found its way to Town Hall.
“I thought it would be fun to reach out and offer a friendly wager,” Stonington First Selectman Edward Haberek Jr. said. “This is a tremendous event for both sides of the river. There’s so much tradition and so many local people come back for it. So much of the history is remembered at the game.”
Haberek’s wager for Westerly Town Council President Diana Serra is this: If Westerly is victorious, Haberek will host Serra for a Stonington fish and chips lunch at the Portuguese Holy Ghost Club during the Lenten season when it is held.
If Stonington wins, Haberek, who will flip the coin at today’s game that starts at 10 a.m., will be Serra’s guest for breakfast at The Cooked Goose.
“I told Ed the bet is on, but he’ll have to do better than fish and chips because I don’t eat fish,” Serra said, laughing. “But the bet is on. Go Bulldogs.”
The Bears hold the overall advantage in games played against the Bulldogs, 70-66-17. Today’s Turkey Day game will be the 154th in the series, though Stonington had to forfeit two games in 1921, during the period when they played each other twice, but it will be the first time the two will meet on Stonington’s new artificial-turf field where the Bears are undefeated.
“It’s fun to be able to have competition between the two towns,” said Jen Sieczkiewicz, 17, a Stonington high junior. Her family lives in Pawcatuck. “My parents are from Westerly. Every year my family goes to the game. Winning the game is fun, it’s always nice to be able to brag.”
Students, teachers, staff and community members packed Westerly High’s gym Wednesday for the Bulldogs’ pep rally. Many wore “The Dawgs Pound the Bears” shirts.
Louis Graeve, a Westerly High senior, greeted most of the fans who filed into the gym. Graeve, 17, was voted as the student with the most school spirit.
“We know what this game means, we’ve all experienced what comes with it,” Graeve, who donned blue face paint, said. “I’m excited for the game. I will be there. I was going to paint my whole body blue for the game, but it’s going to be a little too cold.”
Chuck Dipollino has lived in Stonington for 20 years. He played high school football for Westerly. As far as he’s concerned, there’s only one way to describe the Westerly-Stonington football tradition.
“It’s huge,” Dipollino, whose son, C.J., is a defensive end for Stonington, said. “The two high schools are so close, many of the kids know each other and are friends.
“It’s a big deal. They are going to remember this game for the rest of their lives. It’s just a great atmosphere. And yes, I played for Westerly when I was in high school, but I’m all in for Stonington now.”
Michael Najim agreed — about the magnitude of the game, at least.
“It’s always been big,” Najim, a Westerly resident for 51 years, said. “When the two teams meet, the whole rest of the season is forgotten. Records are 0-0. It’s a whole new season. The players play hard, they give it their all. There can only be one winner. Hopefully Westerly comes up on top.”