Most kids who love sports grow up playing in their backyards, pretending to play for the local professional sports team.
But when you’re from Abington or Rockland, that fantasy is a little different.
When the Rockland and Abington High football teams face off in the Division 6 state final at Gillette Stadium, it will be a dream come true.
"It’s everything you wish for really,” said Rockland senior Brett Armstrong. “To play your rival in Gillette Stadium with everyone watching from the towns, I’m sure that stadium going to be packed. It’s crazy how it all unfolded.”
“It’s absolutely one of the best things ever,” said Abington coach Jim Kelliher. “Every time we play, it’s exciting. We’ve had some battles. We’ve had some times when neither one of us liked each other. It’s been that, but at the same time, it’s just always so nice to say that we have Rockland right beside us and we’re playing them now for the Super Bowl. It doesn’t get any better than that, it really, truly doesn’t. No matter what happens, I’m going to be excited.”
It became apparent very early in the season that this meeting was a possibility. When the teams met on Oct. 8, both came in with undefeated records. Rockland’s defense posted a stellar performance in that one to walk away with a 17-7 win to spoil Kelliher’s 500th game on the sideline. The Green Wave hasn’t lost since.
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“We’re coming in hot,” said Abington senior Drew Donovan. “We’re ready. That's the only loss of the season and we want our revenge. That’s it.”
“I would just feel complete, I would feel satisfied with this year because we’ve beat all the teams and Rockland’s left,” said Abington senior Tommy Fanara. “This is it. There’s one left, and it’s them.”
At the time, it seemed impossible to imagine a bigger game in the rivalry. A milestone for a coaching legend, two undefeated teams and major league title implications were all on the line. That game now pales in comparison to Friday’s Super Bowl.
“It’s your dream,” said Rockland junior Austin Clarke. “It really is anyone small town kid's football dream. If you like sports, this is what you want: the biggest stage that you can be at a high school level from where you are, playing the biggest rival with your high school.”
The neighboring communities are similar. All of Rockland’s eight assistant coaches are graduates from the program (Chuck MacDonald, Fred Damon, Mike Doyle, Peter Harrison, Wayne Leander, Tom McSweeney, Matt Dunn, Matt Anzalone).
Almost all of the coaches on the Abington staff are former Green Waves. Ed Reilly, Dave Lyons, Mbela Kabongo, Kalonji Kabongo, Keith Faxon and Tim O'Brien are all former Green Wavers. Jim Daly and Scott Pifer are the only two coaches in the game not to graduate from the school they're coaching.
For Liquori, he once starred at running back in the 1990s. In his fourth season as coach, he’s helped lead Rockland back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2000.
“To be able to be the person that brings us back to this one, and hopefully things work out well and we’re the one to bring the bigger trophy back on Friday," said Liquori.
After the game, look for plenty of love in the post-game handshake. The towns share a legion baseball team in the summer and these matchups are just the first two of many to come during the winter and spring. But it wouldn’t be a Rockland-Abington game without some punishing hits between the whistles.
“After the game, we can shake hands,” said Rockland junior Leary Costa, “do all that and hug and everything, but during the game we’re silent, straight-faced, we’re serious and we’re there to play.”
Bragging rights is plenty reason for these two teams to leave everything on the field whenever they meet, but add in a state championship on the line, which wasn’t even a possibility until the new statewide tournament format was adopted this year, and this will be the biggest game in the rivalry’s history.
“It would probably be the best feeling we’ll feel in our lives,” said Abington senior quarterback Eddie Reilly. “I mean, what a great way to go out as seniors. I think there’s 15 seniors in the class, and there’s nothing more that we want to do than go out as champions.”
“My family grew up in Rockland their whole lives,” said Armstrong. “It’s small community, so to be from Rockland, it’s all about football.”
This article originally appeared on The Enterprise: HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL: Abington and Rockland rivalry just gets better