PORTLAND – For the Portland and Deering High seniors, the Thanksgiving Day football game is the culmination of four years of work. They’ve experienced the highs and lows that come with a grueling season.

The fact that these players stuck it out through the heat of summer practices and games, and now the chill of late fall, for four seasons speaks volumes of their character.

When the Portland seniors began playing three years ago, there were 16 other classmates joining them on a freshman team that went 7-2. Six remain from that 2009 season.

Deering has had a better retention rate, with 13 of the 14 seniors staying for four seasons.

“Football is a great sport to play but a lousy one to practice,” said Portland’s two-way senior lineman, Kyle Reichert.

“When you play for Portland or Deering, your season is guaranteed to be longer. Some of those kids lost interest, others had injuries. There’s an array of reasons.”

Portland (6-4) and Deering (3-6) will play at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at Fitzpatrick Stadium in the 101st game in the Thanksgiving rivalry.

The teams didn’t play in the regular season because of the challenges of making an eight-game schedule in a league with 14 teams.

The schedule-makers kept the last regular-season game as a rivalry game. For Portland, that’s South Portland and for Deering, it’s Cheverus.

Portland and Deering played an exhibition game the week before the regular season with the Bulldogs winning, 25-19.

This game has the potential to be close again. Portland was ranked fifth in the Crabtree standings and won a playoff game. Deering had a late-season surge to make the playoffs in the No. 8 slot.

The Bulldogs have multiple offensive threats. Deering’s top player is Kenny Sweet, whose move to quarterback coincided with the Rams winning three straight and nearly upsetting Scarborough in Week 4.

Sweet, a senior, rushed for 1,300 yards. Justin Zukowski, a junior, gained 991 yards for Portland.

Deering has won nine of the last 10 Thanksgiving Day games for its best streak in the series that began in 1911. Portland still has a comfortable lead with 54 wins to Deering’s 39. There have been seven ties.

It’s not uncommon for high school players to leave the sport in their first two years.

“You usually lose about half from freshman to senior season,” said Portland Coach Jim Hartman. “Some find that football just isn’t for them.”

The six Portland seniors who stuck with it all four years are Reichert, Nick Volger, Tate Gale, Joe Nielsen, Casey Mahoney and Drew Graham.

After experiencing a pair of 2-7 seasons as sophomores and juniors, the seniors are proud that they helped turn the program around.

The Bulldogs are expected to be strong for at least the next two seasons.

“It’s not easy when you’re not winning,” said Volger, a running back/defensive back. “I play for the love of the game. It’s about being with teammates and working toward a common goal.”

While their friends were at the beach, the Portland and Deering players were sweating through double sessions the first week of practice.

The lure of having a job and spending money is another reason some players opt out.

“You have to strap on the equipment in August and the season goes to Thanksgiving,” said Portland assistant coach Mike Rutherford. “That’s a long commitment and not easy to do. It says a lot about the seniors, who have been here for four seasons.”

Deering last played on Oct. 27, Portland on Nov. 3.

“The wait for the game is a lot worse if you don’t make the playoffs,” said Mahoney.

Other than Reichert and Volger, who played when Portland won the Thanksgiving Day game three years ago, the other seniors haven’t experienced a win on the holiday.

“It means a lot to play on Thanksgiving,” said Nielsen, a receiver.

In his first holiday game as a starter and with the Bulldogs having had a strong season, Nielsen said: “I’m a lot more excited to play.”

Win or lose, playing on a football team can create a family atmospshere, said Reichert.

“We’re all friends. We joke around. I feel I could go to any one of my teammates if I had a problem,” he said.

As for the game, Reichert said: “It’s definitely going to be more intense because we didn’t play during the season.”

Staff Writer Tom Chard can be reached at 791-6419 or at:

tchard@pressherald.com

Twitter: TomChardPPH