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Thanksgiving Football Preview: Needham-Wellesley

The neighbors and rivals will meet for their 124th Thanksgiving Day game on Thursday, Nov. 24, with a win sending Needham to the post-season.

It isn’t exactly Harvard-Yale or Williams-Amherst, but it is indeed one of the oldest high school football rivalries in the country, and every year it lives up to the hype.

On Thanksgiving morning, ’s varsity football team will travel to for their final regular season contest of the season. With a win, they’ll clinch their first playoff berth since 2009.

“We’re working hard in practice. Everyone’s picking up the intensity level that much more. We’re just trying to prepare and work hard, so we can try and win this game,” said , a senior co-captain for Needham.

Needham will enter Thursday’s contest with a one-game winning streak, while Wellesley has dropped their last two matchups against Brookline and Natick. But don’t expect the Raiders to lie down, especially since they’ve challenged the Rockets over the past few years and also last season at .

“It’s probably the one game in your whole high school football career that you will remember most vividly,” said senior co-captain Pete Madsen. “It’s all about the Wellesley game. You’ve got to win that game, and you’ll remember it forever.”

“We’ve been trying to keep it like it’s a playoff game because basically it is a playoff game, and if we lose, it’s basically over. If we win, we go on. So this week has got to be a playoff week of preparation,” said senior co-captain Mike Vespa.

Looking Back at Needham’s Season

Needham’s season has been a true roller coaster as the Rockets have experienced a variety of highs and lows and endured some key injuries. Losing senior quarterback and senior running back Ian Riley obviously hurt Dave Duffy’s squad, but players such as sophomore quarterback Ryan Charter and sophomore running back Rashawn Wise have stepped in and performed well over the past two weeks against Framingham and .  

“Ian [Riley] and Drew [Burnett], those are huge injuries, those are two of the better players in the league, and I think we’ve just been lucky enough that we’ve had Ryan Charter. He’s come in and done a great job. And Rashawn Wise has stepped up big at running back when Mike [Vespa] and Ian were down [with injuries],” Madsen said.

Madsen had many compliments for his young teammates.

“We’ve had a lot of good younger kids come up and fill the roles that they probably weren’t planning on playing much this year, so they’ve done a great job, and a lot of credit goes to them," he said.

Wins against Walpole and helped the Rockets, but losses against Framingham and Natick somewhat derailed their tournament expectations.

“We have a lot of talent from sophomores, juniors and seniors. We’ve lost a lot of kids but still have a lot of good kids on this team, and we want to keep playing,” Vespa said.

As for Wellesley, the Raiders have struggled all season but know they can play the role of spoiler by beating the Rockets and dashing their playoff hopes.

“We’re trying to take one game at a time, but this is it because this could be our last game. If we win, we’re going to the playoffs, which would be great, so it’s definitely a motivation to win,” Riley said.

Seniors Look Ahead to Final Game Against Wellesley

For seniors Mark Riley, Mike Vespa and Peter Madsen, this will mark their final time they’ll face the Raiders in a Rockets uniform. At a recent practice, they discussed the emotions they’ve experienced leading up to Thursday’s tilt with the Raiders.  

“It’s going to be weird to play in the last game. Last year was such an exciting ending, but this year we hope to just get the win whatever way possible,” Riley said. “So, it’s going to be weird, but it’s going to be fun.” 

“It’s bittersweet. I’ve been waiting for this for a long time. I’ve been playing football since I was seven, and been waiting for this game for a long time. Obviously, I don’t want it to end, so it’s going to be tough,” Vespa said.

Similar to Riley and Vespa, Madsen is excited about playing in his final Needham-Wellesley game, but he also is focused on winning it so the season can be extended for another week.

“I’ve been playing here for a few years now, and it’s just crazy that it’s coming to an end like this,” Madsen said. “We win, we have one more game."

Patch's Prediction: The Rockets are one win away from clinching a spot in the upcoming MIAA tournament, and it’s certain that head coach Dave Duffy has his team focused on this particular game. They’re not overlooking Thanksgiving or contemplating playing Brockton, Durfee or New Bedford, so I expect the Rockets to earn their ninth win of the season by beating Wellesley, 21-14.   

Tickets for the game are on sale now and cost $8 in advance, $10 at the gate.

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