The Peninsula Athletic League’s football “Rivalry Week” is, usually, about so much more than just the football at the end of the week.
The game is a week’s culmination of pomp and circumstance, when school spirit is at its highest. It’s the one time a year that the community surrounding the schools get excited and the rivalry game is almost always the biggest draw of the season.
This season will be different. For the players and coaches, the focus will be on the game.
“[Rivalry week] is challenging as a coach. A lot of time you’re dealing with a rally (before the game), a dance and a rivalry game all in the same 24-hour period. That’s a lot,” said Aragon head football coach Steve Sell, who will be playing or coaching in his 35th “Battle of the Fleas” rivalry game when the Dons host Hillsdale Friday night.
“But you know coaches, the fewer distractions, the better.”
Sell’s Hillsdale counterpart, Mike Parodi, said the players don’t necessarily need all the hoopla leading up to the game, as the game is more than enough to get his players pumped up.
“One of the cool things about a rivalry game is, there isn’t much conversation that needs to be had (to get the team fired up),” Parodi said. “It is innate in the community to be ‘up’ for this game. It’s a natural expectation.”
After being among the most lopsided rivalries in San Mateo County — Aragon won every game between 1992 and 2013 — the “Battle of the Fleas” have become one of the more raucous games on the rivalry schedule. It certainly helps that both teams have been more than competitive since the Knights finally snapped their losing streak with a 14-13 overtime victory in 2014. Since then, Hillsdale has won four of the last six meetings, including the last two in 2018 and 2019.
“I think four of them could have gone either way,” Parodi said. “We’ve been pretty darn even the last few seasons. It’s going to come down to who makes plays.”
Having two evenly matched teams is crucial to keeping the excitement surrounding rivalry games alive. The “Little Big Game” between San Mateo and Burlingame has lost some of its luster as the Panthers have won the last 11 games in the series. Menlo-Atherton and Woodside abandoned their traditional rivalry game prior to the 2019 season because of a lack of competitive balance. The Capuchino-Mills “Battle on the Strip” was canceled for this season because Mills did not field a varsity team. Sacred Heart Prep and Menlo School, who will meet in the 18th annual “Valpo Bowl” Saturday afternoon, has seen the Gators win the last three matchups. The “Skull Game” between Half Moon Bay and Terra Nova could be a shell of itself as the Tigers have only been on the field for about a month and have played only two games so far.
Believe it or not, the most competitive rivalry game on the Peninsula might be Carlmont and Sequoia playing for the Terremere Trophy. Sequoia leads the series 34-31.
Despite all that, all a rivalry needs is both teams to be playing well for the fire to be lit. Last season, for instance, there was real hope San Mateo could pull out a win over the Burlingame. The Bearcats came into the 2019 “Little Big Game” at 8-1, the Panthers were 4-6 and needing a win to shore up their playoff chances. The game was as competitive as it’s been in years, with Burlingame pulling out a 21-10 decision.
And even if the teams are going in different directions, the cliché of “throw the records out the window” for rivalry games holds some truth. One team can play a flawless game, the other doesn’t play their best and an upset ensues. It’s why no matter the year or how many times a team has won or lost to their rival, coaches always are sure to drive home the point that 2021 is different that 2019.
“I try to tell the kids … don’t let that group before you affect what you do this year,” Parodi said. “Having been involved in the San Mateo-Burlingame game and now here at Hillsdale; I was at Serra for St. Francis, City College (of San Francisco) and CSM. I’ve been involved in some really fun rivalries. Regardless of talent level or record, those games tended to be closer than they should have — for whatever reason.”
While this season’s rivalry games will be missing a lot of the juice that makes them exciting — only players’ family members are allowed to attend the game — it doesn’t take away from the fact that rivals are playing each other.
“This is the high-water mark for the year for them,” Sell said.