April 13, 2009

Gatorade REPLAY pits fierce rivals again

MORE: Top 10 High School Football Rivalries | Battle of the Hill game | Which rivalry is the best?

Local supermarkets in the Easton (Pa.) and Phillipsburg (N.J.) area better stock up on turkey next week - Thanksgiving is coming twice this year.

Gatorade is bringing a special edition of the annual "Battle of the Hill" rivalry football game between Easton High and Phillipsburg High - traditionally played Thanksgiving morning - to Lafayette College's Fisher Stadium, as members of the 1993 teams suit up April 26 to replay a game that ended in a tie. The date and location are tentative.

The event, called the Gatorade REPLAY, is part of a documentary showcasing one of the greatest high school rivalries in the nation. These two blue-collar towns, separated only by the Delaware River, have faced off almost annually for 102 years with the first official meeting in 1905. Easton leads the series 57-40-5.

"People are saying we get two Thanksgivings," said former Phillipsburg coach Bruce Smith, who left in 1997 and recently retired from coaching but will guide the Stateliners in the replay. "I honestly can see people going home and having their turkey after the game. It's just part of the tradition."

Thirty players from each of the 1993 squads, now in their early 30s, began meeting less than a month ago for weekly practices, as well as special training sessions conducted by Velocity Sports Performance, to get back into the best football condition they can in anticipation of showing which team really was best.

Overtime didn't exist back then, but both schools are serious about settling the score. NFL quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Eli Manning will even be on hand as honorary coaches.

"I wasn't sure what kind of mind-set the players were going to bring - is it just kind of fun? - but it's Easton-Phillipsburg no matter your age," Smith said. "The mind-set is, we are in it to win. It's never just about fun with this game."

Both squads kicked off preparations Feb. 20-21 with a "bonding weekend," packed not only with multiple practice sessions but also opportunities to reconnect and catch up with former teammates and coaches.

Current Easton coach Steve Shiffert, who became head coach in 1993 after serving as an assistant for 17 years prior, said at first the players did get wrapped up in the reunion, but players are serious about the workouts.

Many players still live within an hour or two of their high schools, but some are traveling in from as far as Miami, Denver and other corners of the country, and most probably haven't seen their former teammates in several years.

"The first practice or two was like that where they were just happy to hang out with each other and they were chatting in between drills about families and things like that, but now that they have practices under their belt they are a lot more serious," Shiffert said. "Now the time in between drills, they are jawing with each other, 'I'll get you on this play,' and that kind of stuff. They are getting competitive."

Former Easton linebacker/tight end Darren Smith, now a 31-year-old police officer living in Reading, Pa., said the opportunity to replay the 1993 game is a good chance to reminisce about the "good old days," but he did not just come to reunite with old friends.

It's Easton-Phillipsburg no matter your age. The mind-set is, we are in it to win. It's never just about fun with this game.
- Phillipsburg coach Bruce Smith on the rivalry.

"Everyone cares about this rivalry, and we are taking it 100 percent serious, but at the same time we are a bunch of kids together when the guys get together," he said. "We are having fun, but we are really serious. This rivalry, it's ingrained in you as a kid, and to get to play football again is something special."

Shiffert wasn't sure about the idea of the REPLAY at first because it meant bringing back a group of players who might not have stepped onto a football field for 15 years.

But that changed soon after meeting with his team, and it helps that the REPLAY will feature some slight rule changes to better ensure safety of the players. All kickoffs and punts will result in fair catches, and on defense players are not allowed to blitz and will play man-to-man in the secondary.

"I didn't get sold on it until after I met with the guys and we had a practice or two and I saw their enthusiasm for it," said Shiffert, who was the Express-Times Coach of the Year in 1993. "They've been working really hard, and it should be fun."

Shiffert said about 60 percent of his players arrived in decent shape - including a few who had played semi-pro ball within the last year or two - but even those among the other 40 percent have shown vast improvement since that first weekend.

"Even some of the guys that came in a little bit out of shape and overweight are working out consistently and getting back to where they belong," Shiffert said. "Obviously, we aren't as quick as we used to be. It might be a game that is slower than you would expect to see in terms of speed, but most of the guys are pretty close to where they were."

Darren Smith is one of the 60 percent who came in already in good shape, but he admits what he considers "good shape" is not the football condition he was in a decade ago.

A sophomore in 1993, Darren said he expected the first workout to be tough, and the experience was both good and bad.

"It was good to put the pads back on but the soreness afterward was rough," said Darren, who last played organized football collegiately in 1999. "You knew it was a different kind of getting back into shape, and you knew you had a lot of work to do. We just don't recover like we used to."

Velocity is putting the players through intense workouts, focusing on foot skills, endurance, agility, speed, power and strength, Darren said. He believes the hard work will pay off in the end.

"We don't want to look like a bunch of old guys," Darren said. "We want to come out and look like we can play football. We are 30-year-old men, but we aren't over the hill yet. We are working hard so we can come out and put a show on."

Easton is keeping its roster similar to what it looked like 15 years ago as far as positions go. Shiffert said he believes it will be easier to teach players positions they are already familiar with - though it is missing its star running back, Express-Times 1993 Player of the Year Eric Thompson, and starting quarterback Scott Ordway.

Phillipsburg has some of its top skill players back but is playing around with its lineup in other areas.

"We're doing some shuffling," Smith said. "You can't go into a game like this and expect people to play a position they played 15 years ago."

That's not the case for everyone. Some players are showing they can still line up at positions they played in high school, despite physical changes they may have taken place since high school.

Former Stateliners linebacker Bruce Levitt, for example, put on some weight since his playing days at 215 pounds, so Smith was looking to use him as a defensive lineman. However, Levitt pleaded with his coach to keep him at linebacker and is using that - successfully so far - as motivation to shed some pounds.

Running backs Joe Luke, one of the few Phillipsburg players to gain college playing experience, and Tyrone Randolph were in the backfield for the Stateliners that day in 1993 and will again carry the load for the run-oriented offense come April 26.

"They haven't missed a beat," said Smith, who will use Keith Kullman at quarterback after Tim Stahl, the starting quarterback in 1993, dropped off the roster.

It was Easton's running backs who were supposed to lead the show back in the 1993 contest, though.

The Red Rovers entered the game at 11-1 and were expected to run all over then 4-5 Phillipsburg. Easton scored first on a carry from Thompson following a short kickoff in the third quarter, and within three minutes, the Stateliners answered on a run by Luke.

Every other time the Rovers neared the end zone, Phillipsburg shut them down.

"We had a pretty potent offense," Shiffert said. "We were much bigger than them and we were able to run the ball on just about every team all year long. Phillipsburg just shut our running game down, and that just frustrated us. It was more of a matter of frustration for us. We were the favorite, but they played a better game than us."

The Stateliners' defense made two goal-line stands, and strong safety Timmy Flynn came up with the big play of the game, blocking a field goal with about five minutes left to end the scoring opportunities for either team.

"That was a chip shot," Smith said. "It should have been automatic, but he broke through and blocked it, and the game kind of ended right there."

Though the game ended in a tie, it felt like a loss for Easton, which went on to lose to eventual 4A runner-up Central Bucks West in the state semifinals the next week.

"I just remember the empty feeling we left the stadium with," Shiffert said. "We didn't know how to act because there was such buildup for the game, and they couldn't even give out the trophy."

The REPLAY won't change the results in the record books, but the 1993 teams are enjoying the experience regardless, and the community for the most part has embraced the idea as well.

"Some people say you are crazy, some say it's great, but it's a good opportunity," coach Smith said. "It's neat renewing relationships with players you had 15 years ago and are 30 now and have families of their own. It makes this game unique."

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