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Following OT thriller in 2019, Lancers and Vikings were looking forward to rematch

Should the Waterford High School football team lose to East Lyme earlier in the day, it takes head coach John Strecker a little while to be in the mood for Thanksgiving dinner.

"It's usually dessert before I'm feeling better (in that case)," Strecker said with a laugh. "I was good for the (appetizers) last year."

Last year's edition of the Waterford-East Lyme rivalry game, contested each year on Thanksgiving Day, was an instant classic. Waterford, trailing 28-20, scored and added the two-point conversion with 1 minute, 8 seconds remaining to force overtime.

The Lancers also trailed in overtime before Sam Menders caught a 13-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Bakken, then kicked the game-winning extra point for a 35-34 victory that gave the team a home playoff berth in the Class M state tournament.

Now, multiply those sights and sounds for every season the East Lyme-Waterford game has been played.

That's what the teams will miss in 2020, with the cancellation of high school football this season due to the COVID-19 crisis.

"I'd say my favorite part is just the energy about it," said Menders, a senior wide receiver. "It's both of our biggest games of the year. When you can go in and beat your rival at their home field, it's really unmatched. (Last year's) was the best game I've ever played in or at least my favorite. Going from that to nothing at all ... it makes me pretty sad."

"There's just something about playing your rival," East Lyme coach Rudy Bagos said. "It's like getting up for an early tee time; you don't need an alarm clock. It's just a crisp morning. There's nothing like it. If you lose, it still hurts, but being part of the game was unbelievable."

The teams began their Thanksgiving Day tradition in 1972, with Waterford then coached by Dick Cipriani and East Lyme coached by Dick North. Waterford won 34-19 before 3,531 fans at East Lyme.

Strecker, a 1980 Waterford graduate who played alongside brothers Paul and Mike, has vivid memories of the rivalry games in which he played. One was a 7-6 victory at home.

"We blocked a field goal down at the end of the field by the school," said Strecker, a former offensive tackle. "I can still picture it."

This fall, the teams played in a 7-on-7 format.

"You could tell our kids and their kids would prefer to have pads on and gone," Strecker said. "That was not the format they were looking for."

Football isn't the only Thanksgiving staple that has been altered. Strecker usually has dinner with his wife Terri's family on Thanksgiving Day, including a crowd of about 30 people. The Streckers will forgo that tradition.

"I don't know. This is the first time in a long time I don't have a game," Strecker said. "Me and my wife and my daughter (Aislinn), we're talking about getting a couple steaks. I usually make a dessert; my daughter and I will make a pie or something like that. We made a pilgrim cake one time, a vanilla cake that looked like a pilgrim."

"Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday," said Bagos who along with his wife Amanda has two daughters, 8-year-old Mackenzie and 6-year-old Ainsley. "Any time you can eat as much food as you want and watch football ..."

East Lyme senior running back Patrick Tolley called playing against Waterford "a different game than playing any other town."

"Playing in front of your town ... a lot of the community shows up to the game," Tolley added. "It's such a big rivalry. Both towns look forward to it each year."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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