Jay vs. Livermore Falls football: Merger would end 72-year rivalry

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Literature professors recite sonnets. Preachers quote scripture in chapter and verse.

And Brandon Stanhope can rattle off a series of names and numbers that correspond to what people in his old neighborhood consider the most intense football rivalry in the state.

“I remember it was a rainy, swampy night,” said Stanhope, asked to recall his senior year Livermore Falls-Jay game in 1989.

“We lost 6-0. They had Matt Friedman and Adam Buote as their running backs that year, and they just had a great game. Troy Bonnevie was the quarterback. Scott Hill was a sophomore that year and he was a receiver. We had a young team with Tom and Jon Beedy, Robbie Mitchell, John Castonguay, Matt Jacobs.”

Friedman, now the coach at Madison, recalled the same night as if it happened last weekend.

“We played in a hurricane,” Friedman said. “There was probably four inches of water on the field. It was just one of those knock-down, drag-out games you never forget.”

Four generations have shared in the passion, the animosity and the closeness of competition that are a match made in gridiron heaven.

Livermore Falls-Jay (or Jay-Livermore Falls, and yes, the colors you wear determine the order you use when discussing it) is a rite of autumn that nobody who has played in one ever forgets.

But there’s a burning question as the two schools prepare for Friday night’s 77th edition at Griffin Field in Livermore Falls: Will all future discussion of Tigers vs. Andies take place in the past tense?

Merger of the two neighboring school systems is imminent. Voters in Jay, Livermore and Livermore Falls will go to the polls Jan. 25, 2011.

Students in each town already have been asked to brainstorm a school name, nickname and colors for the consolidated schools.

One option is to combine the middle schools in 2011 with a goal of opening the regional high school in time for the 2012-13 academic year. In any case, there is a strong possibility that tonight’s game is the last or next-to-last game in a series dating back to 1939.

“I have mentioned it,” said Jay coach Mark Bonnevie, who graduated from Jay in 1986. “I’ve just told them that they have to think about the fact that this might be the last one and how great an opportunity it would be to look back and say that they played in it. We’ve been getting them to realize this might be more than just another Jay-Livermore game.”

Fork in the road

Livermore Falls won seven of the first eight games in the series, which has been renewed at least once, often twice, every year since 1947. Jay rallied and owns all-time bragging rights by a thin 40-35 margin (with one tie).

Recent history has favored the Andies, however, with four wins in the last five meetings since the Tigers staved off a two-point conversion to win 14-13 in the 2004 Western Class C championship game. Livermore Falls cost Jay a playoff spot each year by winning the last two meetings. Jay has a chance to return the favor and perhaps end the Andies’ season tonight.

That ebb and flow and the two programs’ excellence have been consistent fuel for the rivalry.

“There’s always a lot at stake even when it isn’t for a playoff spot,” said Ross Hamblin, a 1987 Livermore Falls graduate. “Just the bragging rights.”

Another unique factor in the rivalry is the shared feeder system.

While combining the high schools admittedly is a hard concept for players of yesteryear to swallow, football players from Jay and Livermore Falls already wear the same uniform through eighth grade on the Area Youth Sports recreational team.

“I don’t think there are many places where the kids play together all that time and then the next four years they’re fighting it out,” Bonnevie said. “I think it becomes clearer to them what it’s all about when they leave (AYS) and go into high school and people say, ‘That class is going to be successful.’ Then it plays out over the course of four years and those kids want to be remembered as the class that lived up to it.”

“You grew up playing football with each other from third grade all the way up through junior high,” added Erik Stanley, a former Tigers quarterback and 1998 Jay graduate. “Then you got split up, and you didn’t want to lose to those guys.”

Pregame posturing

The week leading up to the game is an inseparable part of the experience for Livermore Falls-Jay alumni.

Friedman recalls Jay’s pep rally leading up to the 1989 game almost as vividly as the rain and mud that came later.

“As we were walking out of the gym, all we could see was this fleet of cars, maybe 30 or 40 of them, coming around the corner toward our field, all honking their horns,” said the former star running back. “It was all Livermore Falls students. I bet there were a few players that were part of it, too.”

The gamesmanship continued right up until kickoff, almost literally.

Stanhope, a guard and defensive end, reported to the Livermore Falls locker room before 5 o’clock on the rainy afternoon, believing that he would dress for the game and board the bus for the five-minute ride north.

Then-coach Jim Hersom gathered the team for a short meeting, instead, and essentially ordered the Andies to chill out. Livermore Falls would do its pregame stretch for the away game at home.

“Everybody over there was wondering, ’Where the hell are those guys? And of course back then there was no text messaging, no cell phone, so nobody knew what happened to us,” Stanhope said. “Then we rolled in about five minutes before kickoff. We had time to do five jumping jacks, and then there was a coin flip.”

Cruising the stretch of Route 4 that connects the two towns, wearing your school jacket and hollering your case out an open car window remains a tradition. Friedman, who stayed in the area and was an assistant coach at Jay for many years, used to witness that activity through the window of his family’s real estate office.

Players usually cycle back on that activity as the week rolls on, concentrating on the game.

And when that focus doesn’t pay off with a win, it stays with them for life.

“Are you really going to put this in the paper?“ Stanley asked before venting his one lingering frustration from the rivalry. “We lost my senior year. There was a trophy that was like a commemorative ball that went back and forth, and if you won all four years you got to keep the ball forever. We lost the ball.”

If, and when

To current and former players connected with the game, all the talk about possibly joining forces next year might as well be taking place a light year away.

“They’re still friends off the field, but when the game starts it’s all business,” said Hamblin, whose son Nate is Livermore Falls‘ sophomore quarterback. “Then when it’s over they’re friends again.”

“It still gives me goose bumps this time of year,” said Stanhope, now living outside Washington, D.C.

Friedman and Stanley each played college football at Plymouth State and are quick to stack up Jay-Livermore Falls against any game in the second chapter of their careers.

“I played in front of bigger crowds,” said Stanley, “but I didn’t play in any game that was more intense.”

While they relish the rivalry, though, most of the graduates in our small sample are ready to embrace change.

Hamblin, a resident of Fayette, where students and families may choose which area high school to attend, hedged his bets.

“The voters will decide,” he said. “I can’t vote.”

Friedman, Bonnevie, Stanley and Stanhope each are intrigued by the possibility of a collaborative effort.

“We always talked about it even back then how it could be another Mountain Valley,” said Stanhope, referring to the successful Rumford-Mexico merger in 1989. “There is always so much talent between the two schools. Back in our day it would have been Class A.”

Strength in numbers

Stanley runs a strength-and-conditioning program at a gym in Livermore Falls.

He supervises the weight training regimen for players from both teams and occasionally tries to sell them on the merits of a school union.

“I think about my cousin Justin Wells, who was the quarterback in 2004. Could you imagine that team with Brad Bryant, the running back from Livermore? I don’t think there is a team in Class B that could have beaten them,” Stanley said. “I hear kids say, ‘We don’t want to combine the schools.’ I just say, ‘Think about the team you’d have.’ ”

Friedman already has seen the benefits of pooling resources.

The addition of players from Carrabec High School of North Anson likely saved a dying Madison football program. Now, he said, the talk in town is of a full-fledged merger that could even incorporate Valley High School of Bingham.

“It’s the best thing for the students, the community and the players,“ Friedman said of a Jay-Livermore Falls marriage. “It’s going to be a lot like the Rumford-Mexico combination, in that I think you’ll see a very competitive school in everything, not just athletics but academics. It’ll be something the whole community can be proud of.”

Bonnevie won’t predict the future.

For tonight, he knows he’ll coach a football game, in an atmosphere dramatically different than any other athletic contest between the schools. Whether it’s the last football game or simply another link in a historic chain, he can be sure nobody will forget the result.

“Everybody from both towns still talks about the game all week. It’s not about Livermore Falls needing to get into the playoffs or us needing to win, just this one game,” said Bonnevie. “I’m partial to the football side, but I think when you get older and look back on playing in the Jay-Livermore games, football stands out above the others.”

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