As much as the big plays and the big hits, as much as the dramatic swings in emotion and momentum and, yes, even as much as the game-winning kick and the joyous celebration that followed, Jeff Sloat remembers the crowd.

Ten years ago, Sloat and his teammates filed out of Walton School and into the most anticipated Battle of the Bridge in a quarter of a century. Arch-rivals Edward Little and Lewiston took the field surrounded by 5,000-plus fans on a freezing November Saturday afternoon with more than bragging rights at stake.

The 2002 Pine Tree Conference championship revived football passions in the Twin Cities. Sloat, an all-state middle linebacker for EL, realized it when he looked out at the Red Eddies’ practice field in front of Walton School and saw a parking lot crammed with automobiles and tailgaters.

“I remember walking out and seeing that entire field just covered with cars,” Sloat said. “I’d played at Walton a million times and I never saw a crowd like that. Walton Field looked gorgeous that day.

“You always remember the special plays,” he added, “but that atmosphere was unreal, just knowing Auburn and Lewiston supported us and how much that meant to us. That will always be my first memory, seeing those two towns come together for one day. I’ve talked to a a lot of Lewiston kids since then, and it meant a lot to both of us.”

Rob Laverdiere, who as a guard and all-state defensive lineman for Lewiston would spend much of the day colliding with Sloat, remembers the standing-room-only crowd lining the Walton Field track parting to let the teams enter the field.

“It felt like we were coming out for a heavyweight fight,” Laverdiere said. “You could just feel the adrenaline rushing through your veins.”

Their game

This heavyweight fight renewed passions for football not felt in the Twin Cities since “The Game,” the legendary 1977 season finale that would send the winner to the state championship game.

But “The Game” of the 21st century almost didn’t happen.

“If you go back to the preseason of that year, people thought Lewiston might have a chance. They had a really good defense. But EL, nobody expected them to do anything,” said Bim Gibson, author of “The Battle of the Bridge. The History of Edward Little and Lewiston Football.”

Edward Little had to beat Lewiston, 17-13, in the regular season finale at Don Roux Field just to make the playoffs. The Eddies finished the season 4-4 and leapfrogged the 5-3 Blue Devils, who had to forfeit one win from earlier in the season due to using an ineligible player, in the final Crabtree standings. 

As the fifth and sixth seeds, respectively, both were given long odds to reach the championship game. But EL rode the momentum of its win over Lewiston, and a suffocating defense, into the playoffs. With Sloat, Matt Capone, Brian Taylor, Ethan Caswell and Derek Miller making big stops, the Eddies upset No. 4 Gardiner, 7-6, in the quarterfinals, then shocked top-seeded Skowhegan, 20-14, in the semifinals.

“Our defense carried us, pretty much all year. So we just asked the kids to continue to play with great determination and resiliency,” said Jim Hersom, who was in his first year as the Red Eddies’ head coach at the time.

Lewiston’s more highly-touted defense lived up to its billing in the playoffs, too, leading the Blue Devils to a quarterfinal upset over No. 3 Mt. Blue, 20-14, and a 26-0 romp over No. 7 Waterville in the semifinals.

“My entire secondary was all-conference that year,” County said. “Aaron Daly was extremely fast at corner. Kirk Bolduc was just a vicious corner. He was big enough to be a linebacker and fast enough to be a defensive back. (Brent ) Dube was playing free safety in the middle and (Jereme) Madore was the other safety.”

Players and coaches recall the week leading up to the game as being almost as exciting as the game itself. Local and statewide media hype, accompanied by strangers on the street wishing the players and coaches good luck, made it virtually impossible to escape the frenzy.

With rain making Lewiston’s field unfit for practice, the Blue Devils spent much of the week practicing on the artificial turf lacrosse field at Bates College. The disruption to their routine didn’t serve as a distraction, though. It brought the team closer together.

The Devils didn’t particularly enjoy a spaghetti dinner administrators held from both teams the night before the game at Walton School, County said. The players understood what the gesture meant to bring the two communities together, but by that point in the week, EL was the enemy.

“To use the word awkward would be an understatement,” County said. “You had the Lewiston team sitting on one side of the room and EL sitting on the other side. We had the dinner. We were cordial. But we were glad to get out of there.”

The Blue Devils showed how ready they were for the game by taking a 13-0 lead in the second quarter on a Madore 2-yard touchdown run and Bolduc’s 16-yard TD pass from Dube. B.J. Mooney’s 34-yard TD run pulled the Eddies back within a touchdown, 13-7 before halftime.

“I think the kids were a little bit shocked at halftime that we weren’t doing as well as we thought we were going to,” Hersom said. “(Assistant) coach Gus LeBlanc (now principal at Lewiston High School) set them straight that, ‘Hey, we’re in a dogfight. What are we going to do?’ The second half, the kids came out and played a little bit better.”

Power plays

While the Eddies were getting fired up for the second half inside Walton School, Walton Field was getting blacked out.

In the press box, Gibson, the public address announcer, lost his voice, so to speak. A pizza concession overloaded the electrical system at halftime, silencing the sound system and shutting down the scoreboard for the rest of the game.

The action on the field didn’t go smoothly, either, but the game lived up to the hype in the second half. The teams combined for nine turnovers and the tension built with every swing of momentum and emotion.

The biggest shift in momentum came in the third quarter, when Capone picked off a pass and took it back 29 yards to tie the game.

“That was a big moment,” County said. “We had the lead and we had the ball and they were both gone, just like that.”

“When he made that interception, that was the one play I’ll always remember,” said Sloat, who now works as a radio producer and lives in Portland with his wife, Liisa. “I’ve never seen a celebration like that, Matt running into the crowd in the end zone.”

Bolduc blocked the extra point to keep the game tied and set up the dramatic finish.

In overtime, each team got four downs to score, starting from the 10-yard line. EL got the ball first and Daly intercepted Matt Bennett near the end zone, giving Lewiston a chance to win the game. But the Blue Devils fumbled from the 3 on second down and Taylor recovered to send the game into double OT.

“I took a guy and threw him out the back of the end zone and I thought we’d scored,” Laverdiere said. “I heard the crowd and I turned around and I saw we fumbled the ball. How’d we fumble the ball?”

Lewiston took first possession for the second overtime and fumbled again, with Caswell on the recovery. Needing only a field goal to win, the Eddies stayed conservative on offense. When Mooney got them down close to the 1-yard line on third down, Hersom considered going for it on fourth down before sending Will Claxton out to kick a 17-yard field goal.

“I don’t know what changed my mind. I was going to go for it and something just clicked to change my mind,” Hersom said. “We hadn’t really kicked a lot of field goals. As a matter of fact, that was probably our only field goal that year. But he was pretty good on extra points.”

This chip shot was essentially the equivalent of an extra point, and Claxton booted it through the uprights with enough power to launch it onto the school’s roof.

“I didn’t watch it at all,” Sloat said. “I just waited for the crowd to erupt if it went through and that ‘Ahhh’ if he missed it.”

The Edward Little crowd did erupt, while the Lewiston side across the field fell silent. EL won, 16-13.

EL went on to lose to Portland, 41-6, in the state championship game the following week. That loss still stings for the Eddies, but winning the biggest game of their lives, on their home field against their biggest rivals helps salve that disappointment.

Laverdiere still thinks about the game, too, but doesn’t have a victory to console him.

“I’d still go back and do it again right now, though,” he said.

Now in his first year coaching freshman football at Lewiston, he returned to Walton for the first time since that game when his team played the EL freshmen last week. The bittersweet memories came rushing back.

“I could see it all coming back, just all kinds people standing all around the track, standing room only, and everything that happened on the field,” Laverdiere said. “Of course, I wanted the results to be different.”

Out of the woodwork

The Eddies and Devils have played some big games against each other since 2002, most notably a PTC semifinal in 2008 that EL won, 28-7. But if someone were to look at the crowds of the most recent Battle of the Bridge games, they might decide the passion has subsided.

Gibson believes it’s just a matter of  the two communities having good teams to rally around.

“People want to care about football. I think it’s still deep in the culture of who we are,” he said.”After 1977, it wasn’t really a great time for football. Lewiston had some moments, but EL didn’t have great football in the 1980s and 1990s, and a lot of people were saying: ‘Football’s not what it used to be.’ Then 2002 comes, and everyone comes out of the woodwork.”

Football is so deep in the Twin Cities’ culture that Gibson believes the annual gridiron meeting is the center of the Lewiston/EL rivalry. Even though the Twin Cities is considered a hockey hotbed, Lewiston’s biggest rival on the ice has historically been St. Dom’s. Other sports, such as basketball and baseball, don’t have the history or passion. Soccer is booming in the area and the rivalry between the schools is becoming more intense in that sport, but it still doesn’t have football’s tradition.

“I think, without a doubt, football was, and can be, the kingpin,” he said.

The 2012 Lewiston and Edward Little teams go into Saturday’s game at Don Roux Field with a combined record of 3-13. The players won’t be greeted by as big of a crowd as the throng that greeted Sloat and Laverdiere 2002. But Sloat and Laverdiere and a number of their teammates will be at the game, because on a personal level, the rivalry transcends records and rewards, whether they are for championships, bragging rights or pride.

“I’d tell my players, ‘After high school, most of you will never play football again,'” Laverdiere said. “Give it your all in every practice and every game. A rivalry like this, you’re only going to get four opportunities in your career to be a part of it, and you don’t want to hold anything back or look back and regret that you didn’t give it your all.”

Top 5 Battle of the Bridge Games

Bim Gibson, author of “The Battle of the Bridge. The History of Edward Little and Lewiston Football” and PA announcer for Edward Little, ranked the top five games in the history of the rivalry:

1. 1977 – EL 22, Lewiston 20

2. 2002 – EL 16, Lewiston 13

3. 1941 – EL 6, Lewiston 0

4. 1965 – Lewiston 14, EL 12

5. 1920 – Lewiston 20, EL 13

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