If the palpable energy circulating across the gridiron and through the bleacher seating at Two River Times field Friday evening was any indication, a four-year respite did little to quell the communal passion for a rivalry meeting between Red Bank Catholic and Rumson-Fair Haven’s respective football programs.
For 61 years these perennial Shore Conference powers gave their Two River-area communities an annual Thanksgiving Day matchup, a tradition that was unceremoniously dismissed in 2014.
During an Oct. 23 interview with The Two River Times, Caseys longtime director of athletics, Joe Montano, recalled those chilly November mornings when he wouldn’t make it to the RBC sideline until midway through the third quarter of play.
“I can’t tell you how many years I was out on Drs. James Parker Boulevard selling tickets to get people inside. There was so many fans coming through the gate that I’d look up and the game was almost over,” Montano said.
“It was an incredible tradition and we never had a single problem with rival fans because we’re a community. We all know each other. We’re all friendly. The biggest problem we had is that no one in the stands would be watching the game because we were all socializing,” he added.
The most recent Oct. 19 matchup was everything you’d expect from a meeting between the two top-ranked programs in the Shore Conference: a back-and-forth campaign with momentum-shifting efforts on both sides of the ball, all culminating in a blocked extra point by Caseys standout Jaden Key late in the fourth quarter to seal a 14-13 Red Bank Catholic victory.
It was a perfect way to rekindle the once regular flames of this clash of local titans, and to do it in front of a capacity crowd leaves one nagging question: Why did it ever stop?
According to Chris Lanzalotto, Rumson-Fair Haven director of athletics, it didn’t make any sense for his Bulldogs to participate in the game for the sake of tradition alone.
Lanzalotta cited the poor timing of this once traditional holiday meeting, a game scheduled one week prior to the final round of the sectional state championship tournament.
“That became the big issue. We were playing against a rival and a conference power and one week after that we were expected to compete for a state title. Speaking competitively, it just didn’t make sense for us to schedule the game anymore.”
Prior to Friday’s matchup, the teams last met in 2013, a season that began an unprecedented run of success for Rumson-Fair Haven, which has appeared in five consecutive sectional state championship games (2013-17) and won four straight (2013-16).
Montano said he understands the Bulldogs decision not to play the game and respects the greater goals of the program. He also noted Red Bank Catholic’s 2013 victory over Rumson-Fair Haven marked the Casey’s 11th consecutive victory in that Thanksgiving Day series.
For Montano, the decision to schedule the game or not comes down to creating moments for his athletes and he believes it’s the responsibility of him and all his colleagues around the state to provide those special settings.
"One hundred football players walked off that field on Friday and it’s a game they’ll talk about for the rest of their lives,” Montano said. “Whether they were getting water on the sideline or were the starting quarterback, they’ll talk about it. Any opportunity we have as athletic directors to provide these types of opportunities, I’m all for it.”
“I understand that you have to operate from a mindset of what works best for your school, but I hope what happened on Friday night will help people think, ‘Why not? Let’s get this going again.’ ”
Lanzalotto said, enduring memories aside, the successes of these two programs will dictate if an annual meeting between the Bulldogs and Caseys is in the cards, speaking about the new point system adopted by the Shore Conference that ranks teams based on their performance the season prior and the strength of their schedule.
He explained that if the Bulldogs and Caseys are both members of the same division next season, which is a possibility considering their success in 2018, then the teams would be forced to play each other.
However, if they are not in the same division, which is the situation this year, they would still have the opportunity to schedule one out-of-division game, the route they chose in 2018.
But Lanzalotta would not commit to guaranteeing an annual meeting.
“To commit and say we want to guarantee that we’ll play a top-three team in the conference, I’m not sure that’s in our best interest. But with the way scheduling and divisional alignments work now with this point system, I can’t see how we’re not playing (Red Bank Catholic) next year.”