East Providence, LaSalle Thanksgiving Day game could lose its luster under proposed changes

eplstd2013

EAST PROVIDENCE — While not in any danger of going away entirely in the near term, there’s a real chance the traditional Thanksgiving Day gridiron rivalry between East Providence High School and LaSalle Academy will suffer greatly in significance if a plan forwarded by the state’s football coaches committee is implemented by the Rhode Island Interscholastic League as expected.

The annual holiday showdown between the Townies and the Rams, the longest running Turkey Day contest of teams from Rhode Island (the game between Westerly and Stonington, Conn. is older) is likely to become a non-league contest once a restructuring of the playoff schedule is implemented.

The coaches committee and the RIIL have each expressed their desire to have all preliminary round postseason games played the week prior to the Thanksgiving, as has been the case for the last several years in the Division II ranks.

The governing bodies cite a very crowded schedule, which has seen teams, including E.P. and LaSalle, play three meaningful and physical contests (Thanksgiving, a semifinal and the championship Super Bowl) in a span of 10 days, as the reason for proposing the change. And to accomplish that, teams would have to complete their regular season schedules by the second week of November.

East Providence and LaSalle, both in Division I, have counted their holiday outing as a league contest. In order to meet the new guidelines, however, Thanksgiving would in the future be considered a non-league game, one that doesn’t count in the D-I standings, or possibly serve as a playoff game if the Townies and Rams are matched up in the semifinals, according to East Providence Athletic Director Bob Duarte.

“The game is not going away,” Mr. Duarte stressed. “But there’s a possibility that when we play on Thanksgiving it will be a non-league game. The (RIIL) wants to start the playoffs the Friday before Thanksgiving. Obviously, the LaSalle-East Providence (Thanksgiving) game would become irrelevant if we play earlier in the season.”

It’s likely the complaints of East Providence and LaSalle have fallen on deaf ears to a certain extent because, as it stands under the current alignment of the state’s four football divisions, only four schools are affected by the potential change. Besides the Townies and Rams counting Thanksgiving as a league game, the intracity showdown between Cranston East and West is also a Division I league outing. Officials from those schools, however, support the change, Mr. Duarte said.

He added, “It’s only really those four schools that are affected, and the Cranston schools want it. They want to the two games each season, the two gates (ticket revenue).”

Though the two-gate possibly may seem enticing for E.P. and LaSalle, administrators at the schools are looking at the potential downside of the change. The Townies and Rams, at their peak when both teams are strong, can draw upwards of 10,000 patrons to Pierce Memorial Stadium on Thanksgiving Day, when alumni at the schools are keenly interested and several return to the state to visit relatives.

“We’ve voiced our displeasure with the proposal, East Providence and LaSalle,” Mr. Duarte continued. “We feel that there’s the potential to hurt the gate if we’ve already played earlier in the year. We don’t know for sure, but it’s possible. A lot of people attend the game based on its significance as a league game. If it’s not as significant, then it’s likely not as many people will want to come watch it.”

If the game were a playoff semifinal contest, of course it would only add to the luster of the rivalry. But if the game doesn’t count in the standings, then Mr. Duarte is afraid it would basically turn into an exhibition if one or both teams are still in the postseason picture.

“There will likely be no desire on the part of the coaches to play the game hard if they have a championship game to prepare for the following week. They wouldn’t want to get anybody hurt,” Mr. Duarte said.

A formal declaration by the RIIL is expected to be made in the next few weeks.

“We haven’t heard anything yet. I’m sure we will soon, but I don’t think it’s going to be what we want to hear,” Mr. Duarte added.

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