Outside of the community of South Burlington, VT the game against Essex High School in 1997 didn't mean much. But to the Rebel team that season it meant more than anything in their young lives. It was a chance to return a program to glory.
The Rebels had a renaissance in 1997, stunning teams week after week in similar fashion, running the football and making key plays through the air. Led by an experienced offensive line, an all-around running back in B.J. Barrett and young sophomore quarterback named Brennan Carney, the Division 3 Rebels beat Division 2 teams, St. Johnsbury, Springfield and Spaulding to start off the season 3-0.
The Rebels continued their success beating Division 3 foes, Windsor and Woodstock easily. The only stumbling block for the Rebels in the regular season was a loss to Lyndon Institute.
After dominating the Mill River in week eight of the season, the Rebels turned their sites to a game they have circled on their schedule all season long. A match-up with long time rival, Essex.
Over the years the rivalry between South Burlington and Essex had faded with the Hornets dominating the series for the better part of a decade. The last time the Rebels had beat the Hornets was in 1983. The two programs had gone in completely different directions since the height of their rivalry in the 1970's and early 1980's. During the time period the Rebels won championships in 1970, 1971, 1974, 1979, and 1982, while the Hornets won championships in 1973 and 1981.
The Rebels struggled to get players to sign up to play football at the school and their numbers dwindled to less than 50 players in their program during the 1990's. Soon Rebel football was an after though for students at South Burlington. The limited number of players resulted in loss after loss. The Rebels eventually dropped to Division 3, the lowest Division in Vermont state football that wasn't eight-man football.
The Hornets on the other hand continued to dominate for years including state championships in 1987, 1998 and 1992. The didn't have trouble getting players to come out for football, with their total number of players in the program over 100.
By 1997, the rivalry was all but extinct. Since the Rebels were in Division 3, and the Hornets were in Division 1, there was no importance to the game...just pride. For the Rebels that's all they needed to motivate them. For years Rebels players had heard from brothers, relatives and friends about how they lost to Essex. In many cases not just lost, but were blown out by Essex.
While none of the players ever talked about it at the time, it was important game to try and show their community that Rebel football was important, and chance to complete the turn around of the program.
What was even more special about the game was that it would be the last for long time Essex Coach Bruce Wheeler who was retiring after a 25 year run.
Even though I played in this game, I don't remember all the exact details. I remember parts of the week leading up to it. Our head coach Joe McDonald and his coaching staff kept telling us it was a chance to put the past in the past and move on. That we could be the team to end the streak. But more than anything they told us that regardless of division or how many players that are in your program, it's about the eleven players you put on the field, and we were a better football team then them.
While we knew we were a better team than Essex, the local media did not. All season the long the weekly sports reporters had picked against us in key games. That week was no exception with only one person picking us to win.
If all these factors didn't motivate you, I don't know what would.
The day of the game came, and my teammates and I did our normal routines. Some of us played video games, while others watched movies like "The Program" to get us ready for the game. However, when it was time to get on the bus and go to Essex none of that mattered. All that mattered was winning. One shot, to not only prove to ourselves but to the doubters.
As we left our locker room and got on the bus, we saw letters taped to the wall in our locker room from friends and family encouraging us on. It was something I knew I'd never forget.
The bus ride to Essex was pretty quiet. We all just tried to remain focused. Finally we arrived in Essex, and you could see the lights of the field. We waited in the locker room for to go out to the field, we listened to our usual anthem, "Eye of the Tiger" by Survivor. Soon it was time to go out to the field.
As we walked out to the field you could feel the cool autumn air, and smell the popcorn. The crowd started to pack in and the excitement grew.
Prior to the game the Hornets honored their long time coach with a gauntlet of alumni for him through. Not many of us even paid attention to it we just kind of said to each other "Good, they'll get to watch him lose his last game as a coach."
The game started and before we knew it we were leading 26-8 at halftime. Not only were winning the game but we were blowing them out. It was an awesome feeling looking at the scoreboard.
Eventually the adrenaline we had wore off and started to slow down a little bit. The coaches put some younger players in to give us a rest, but soon some big plays put Essex right back in the game. As the game got closer and closer I started to realize that those guys had a lot to prove to. For many of them it was the last game of their high school careers because they weren't going to the playoffs like us. They wanted to do it for their coach who was retiring.
Late in the fourth quarter their was a pivotal third down, that if we didn't convert would force a fourth down and could possibly give the ball back to Essex with a chance to take the lead. I remember coming out of the huddle and feeling exhausted. I heard the cadence from our quarterback and then I snapped the ball. I stepped into my block and then I heard a ball whistle by my helmet. I looked up and saw Keith Robertson catch the go-ahead touchdown in the back of the end zone from Brennan Carney. All season long we had joked with our young quarterback about his play but in that moment he made the biggest play of our high school careers.
Essex scored again and eventually made it a 33-31 game, but we held on for the win. Finally, we had beat Essex. I remember running over to my friends and family and hugging them, and then jumping in a huge snow bank made from the ice from the ice rink and almost killing myself. The whole way back to South Burlington our parents formed a line with cars, they honked their horns and flashed their lights.
At that moment we were all that mattered in the world.
The following week we were upset in the playoffs by Woodstock ending our season. However, the following season the Rebels continued to build on their success beating Essex again and eventually avenging their 1997 loss by beating Woodstock and winning the Division 3 state championship.
Since the 1997 season, the Rebels have moved from the depths of Division 3 back to Division 1 and have won three state championships in 1998, 2004 and 2005 and have appeared in various state championship games. Essex on other hand has won only one state championship in 2009. The Rebels have won seven of the their last 16 meetings with Essex, with the Hornets winning nine.
While I didn't play on any of the future Rebel teams, I know my former teammates and I feel in some way directly responsible rejuvenating the rivalry between Essex and helping turn the program around.