By Tom Chard
Marshwood and York will play football Saturday before a large crowd with a lot at stake. Sound familiar?
In the late 1970s and through most of the 1980s, the schools had classic battles. They often met in the last game of the regular season with the Southern York County League title up for grabs, before the regional playoff system began.
The rivalry died when Marshwood moved to Class A in 1989 and promptly won the state championship. When the Hawks were reclassified to Class B for football before last season, the potential for renewal was reborn.
Saturday's showdown between the No. 1 ranked Hawks ( 9-1) and No. 3 Wildcats (8-2) in South Berwick for the Western Class B title evokes memories of past contests, and the relationship between the communities of York, Eliot and South Berwick.
"Those were great games," said Ted Welch, the York athletic director.
As head coach of the Wildcats from 1979-89, Welch experienced it firsthand.
"The communities were intertwined. Back then the bases (Portsmouth-Kittery Naval Shipyard and Pease Air Force Base) employed thousands of people. Many of the families of the players from both schools worked alongside each other. There was a lot of buildup for the games and consequently we had huge crowds," he said.
The rivalry arguably reached its height from 1978-80.
Rod Wotton was the legendary Marshwood coach. Under Wotton the Hawks won state titles in four classes and had a 45-game winning streak.
"We had some great games with York," said Wotton. "It's good that the rivalry is back."
Marshwood beat York 6-2 in 1978 at York. The Wildcats won 14-8 in 1979 at Marshwood and then, in 1980, scored in the final minute to beat the Hawks 21-14 at York.
Rich LaBonte was York's star quarterback in 1980: "We tied them up and Mr. LaBonte drove them down the field to beat us," said Wotton.
The 1980 victory was significant because a state playoff system had been initiated. York went on to beat Livermore Falls for the Class C title.
"Those games with Marshwood were huge," said LaBonte.
"We were kind of the new kids on the block going against a team that never lost. It was all new territory for us."
LaBonte went on to play at the University of Maine as a quarterback/punter and has helped scout York opponents over the years.
In those days the crowds would line the perimeter of the field several rows deep. The bleachers were small compared to today's modern structures.
"The fans could stand right by the sidelines," said Tom Howarth, who played for Marshwood in 1984-85.
"There were a lot of ex-players. If you missed a block, a tackle or dropped a pass, they would let you know about it. Football meant everything back then. It was all the communities talked about."
Howarth remembers going to a Marshwood-York game at York as a kid and seeing a York Homecoming float with a stuffed Marshwood player hanging by a noose.
"You couldn't do that these days," he said.
York Coach Randy Small played for the Wildcats in the mid-1980s. Asked what he remembered most about those games with Marshwood, he said: "Just the atmosphere. The crowd had to step aside to let the teams on the field. As kids we would go the games and play pickup games. We couldn't wait until we were old enough to play for the high school team. The high school players were like rock stars."
Small said the younger kids still look up to the high school players, which is refreshing.
Marshwood beat York 28-12 in the opening game this season. Both teams have changed since that game, which seems so long ago.
Marshwood Athletic Director Rich Buzzell said he anticipates a crowd that could approach 5,000 on Saturday.
"The excitement around school has been great. There have been a lot of calls from alumni asking about the game," he said.
Staff Writer Tom Chard can be reached at 791-6419 or at: