By Mark E. Vogler
It’s been a challenging, chaotic year for the Saugus High football team, which began the season without their head coach Anthony Nalen – who was fired in the midst of a controversy that made unflattering national news.
“We lost our whole coaching staff. It was tough,” Sachems Co-Captain Jake Morgante told The Saugus Advocate this week as he reflected on his team’s year of adversity.
But Morgante and the other seven seniors who will play the final game of their High School football careers next Thursday (Nov. 22) know they can end their playing days on a positive note that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.
“We got to win this one, because it means lot to me,” the 18-year-old, four-year veteran said as he looked ahead to their Thanksgiving Day showdown against Peabody Veterans Memorial High School at 10 a.m. in Peabody.
“We’ve lost all three of my Thanksgiving Day games, and I plan on holding up the trophy this year,” he said.
Morgante got to hold up two other coveted trophies on Wednesday night (Nov. 14) – one of them he will take home as this year’s recipient of the Saugus Lions Club “Heisman Award.” His name will be engraved on the giant “Heisman Trophy” that goes back on display at Saugus High to honor all past recipients.
A battle of 4-6 teams
The presentation of Morgante’s award and another one to Evan Bun – “an unsung hero” of the Peabody team – were the highlights of the 46th Annual Football Meeting and Dinner. The event, which was hosted this year by the Peabody Lions Club at the Holy Ghost Society Hall, is the traditional kickoff to the Thanksgiving Day rivalry between the Saugus High Sachems and the Peabody High Tanners. Both teams head into the rivalry matchup with identical 4-6 records.
“I don’t know where I’d be as a coach without this kid,” Saugus High School Coach Mike Mabee told the crowd as he presented Morgante with the award.
“He does a great job on the field … keeps his mouth shut and plays football,” Mabee said of his two-way starter, who plays defensive tackle and offensive end.
But in his interview later, Morgante said the award should be shared with his two co-captains. “There are two more kids who have played on the varsity for years who deserve this as much as me: Dante McGrane and James Moise,” Morgante said.
“I wish I could put their names on this, too,” he said.
Morgante, an Honor Roll student, is also a captain of the basketball and lacrosse teams.
With his eye on the Thanksgiving clash with Peabody, he beams confidence. “We could have done better, but we made a run for the playoffs. And we got an upset win that allowed us to compete into the second round. Now we got a chance to walk off winners,” Morgante said.
Peabody Tanners’ Coach Mark Bettencourt paid the Sachems – and Saugus High School Coach Mabee, in particular – a public tribute at Wednesday’s dinner. “I think it’s going to be a solid game,” Bettencourt said, adding that he didn’t think the game would be lopsided like many of the recent games between the two schools.
“Whatever happens [on Thanksgiving Day], you guys have all my respect,” he said, noting that the Sachems persevered under Mabee’s leadership to win four games, including a playoff upset win. Not bad, considered what the team had to endure this year.
Rivals breaking bread
A victory would be sweet for Mabee, of course, considering he’s never been on the winning end of a Saugus-Peabody Thanksgiving Day clash. A member of the Saugus High School Class of 1996, Mabee played for the Sachems in three Thanksgiving Day games – all losses.
On the other hand, Bettencourt, a 1991 Peabody High graduate, played in two Turkey Day games – both victories.
Peter Sakelakos, treasurer and board of director of the Peabody Lions Club, laments how his high school career ended on a sour note. “I played in this game many years ago and know what this game means for Peabody and what this game means for Saugus,” Sakelakos told the dinner crowd.
“In my senior year, I was the captain, going into Saugus undefeated. And we lost, and it knocked us out of the state championship. You’ll remember this game – win or lose,” he said.
It was a bitter loss, Sakelakos recalled later about the 1968 showdown. “It was 24-12 and we lost at our home field – Leo Buckley Stadium, the old Peabody Stadium. Sakelakos, who played offensive and defensive tackle, said the team failed to make the playoffs despite finishing with a 7-1-1 record.
But Sakelakos said the rivalry continues to be a great tradition. Both of his sons – Chris (1998 Peabody graduate) and Mark (2002 Peabody graduate) – played in the game.
As for the meal, this is the first time in many years that the Peabody Lions Club has hosted the meal for the seniors and the coaching staffs of both teams.
“It’s the ultimate show of what Thanksgiving football is supposed to be about: breaking bread with your rivals, enjoying a pleasant night and then being able to turn on the juices Thanksgiving morning,” Bettencourt said.
“It’s nice to bring both teams together so everybody can enjoy a nice meal,” Mabee added.