BENNINGTON -- Forget the 4-0 record. Forget that Saturday night’s game against the Southern New Hampshire Beavers (2-1), the first intra-divisional opponent for the Southern Vermont Storm, will go a long way in showing if the Bennington-based Storm are for real.
For most of the guys on the Storm roster, the game is important - but just as important is where the game is being played.
More than two dozen players competed for Mount Anthony Union High School for the Patriots, and those guys will get another chance to put on the pads at Spinelli Field in the one true ‘home’ game of the year.
"It means everything to these guys who played on that field in high school at one point," said Tighe Stratton, who graduated from Mount Anthony in 1996 and played under coach Dave Polen. "Most [players] played all four years and we only get one game, so it’s amplified even more. If we had four, I don’t think the excitement would be as high. It’s definitely something special."
Players from a generation of Mount Anthony football compete, giving the game a feel of family and brotherhood, even more so than other ‘home’ games at Schuylerville or Manchester. Also, the team will honor another MAU grad and teammate, Ed Bushee, who died at a practice in 2009.
"It gives it a family touch to play with guys from different eras," said defensive back Gary Hewson, who graduated from MAU in 2009 and missed the Spinelli game in 2013.
Dennis Mailhot was a stud skill player for the Patriots in the late 1980s and still straps on the pads for the game at Spinelli. Stratton graduated in 1996, while guys like Rick Keir and Gary Hewson graduated within the past 10 years.
"It brings together two decades of MAU [players] and there’s a lot of talent in this area," Stratton said. "Looking back, I remember coaching some of these guys in MAYAA [youth] football. There’s a big football tradition in Bennington. And some of these guys are coming in right away, not waiting to play with the Storm until they’re 25."
One example is Keir, an offensive lineman who has been with the Storm for a handful of seasons. He graduated from Mount Anthony in 2006 and played for Jim Fischer, who also played for the Storm.
"It’s great, every time I take Spinelli Field, I play on it like it’s the last time I’ll play on that field. It’s great, I look forward to it and it’s my favorite game of the year," Keir said. "The intensity’s up, lots of guys are at practice. It should be a good game against the Beavers, probably the best game of the year."
The specialty of the night brings back former players who have worn the MAU and Storm uniforms in the past for a ‘one-night-only’ game.
"Guys come back specifically for this game and it’s happening this year too," Stratton said. "You can smell football in the air, it’s close to [the] NFL starting. Guys [are] on the fence and they decide to give it a go, and who can blame them?"
Also, monetarily, it’s good for business. The money raised through the game at MAU can be a major boon for the rest of the season. Stratton said that some of the admission money will be donated to the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union’s Early Childhood Program to help kids with learning disabilities. A portion of the money raised by the concession stand will be donated to Betsy Hurley, a Paralympic skier from Bennington who is training to compete in the 2018 Paralympic Games.
"On the business end, it’s huge. Sponsors have gone down through the years, and playing [at the other ‘home’ sites], we lose or break even, so it’s huge for us," Stratton said.
The Storm seem to feed off the homefield advantage that Spinelli Field provides. They lost last season to the Central Mass Sabercats, a team that hasn’t been defeated in a year and a half.
"We always seem to play better at MAU. We have a tough challenge with the Beavers, but we definitely have the 12th man with [the memory of Ed Bushee, a player who died in 2009] and the crowd," Stratton said.
It proves that the alumni network of Mount Anthony football is strong as ever.
"Getting guys that played back in the ‘80s or ‘90s, 2006 for me and others that just graduated Š the MAU alumni are still living, still playing," Keir said.
Saturday night’s game starts at 7 p.m. at Spinelli Field at Mount Anthony Union High School against the Southern New Hampshire Beavers. Admission is $5.