Last Battle of the Bridge?
BIDDEFORD/SACO – This year’s Battle of the Bridge, an annual football game between Biddeford High School and Thornton Academy, may be the last game in one of the longest-held football rivalries in the nation.
The series kicked off in 1893 when the cities on either side of the Saco River were bustling with activity and the mills were in high production.
In past decades, the Biddeford Tigers and Thornton Academy Trojans have squared off in the eighth week of the Class A football season, which is their final game of the regular season. This year’s Battle of the Bridge will take place at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 24 at Waterhouse Field in Biddeford.
Because of declining enrollment, the Biddeford school department is seeking a move from Class A to Class B. The switch will need to be approved by the Maine Principals Association, which administers interscholastic high school sports in the state.
Brian Curit, head football coach in Biddeford, said the Battle of the Bridge always evokes a lot of school spirit and has been a longstanding community tradition. The game almost always has playoff implications for either or both teams, he added.
Each year, in a display of pageantry, cheerleaders from both schools adorn the bridge connecting the cities on U.S. Route 1 with their team’s respective colors – maroon and gold streamers on the Saco side of the bridge and orange and black balloons tied to the Biddeford side.
Since the first snap in 1893, the two schools have met 93 times in regular season matchups and three times in postseason. Thornton Academy leads the series 53-35; the teams have tied eight times.
This year’s battle will be the 97th overall and will cap a streak of 52 consecutive years.
Gary Stevens, athletics director at Thornton Academy, said both schools boast “two of the game’s oldest and most storied football programs.”
Curit said he believes the rivalry between Biddeford High School and Thornton Academy is one of the top 15 oldest high school football rivalries in the nation.
In 1893 however, the game of American football had not evolved to what it is today. Largely based on rugby, the rules were different, scoring was different and players were not dressed in the protective gear required today. The forward pass and modern-day shape of the football did not come into prominence until the 20th century.
Stevens said Thornton Academy’s 12-0 win over Biddeford High School in 1893 was probably achieved with rushing touchdowns worth two points each, or field goals worth five points. In the late 19th century, a goal kicked after the touchdown was also worth two points.
By the early 1900s, touchdowns were worth five points and in 1912, they were raised to six points each with the extra point worth only one and field goals reduced to three.
The rivalry, Stevens said, is one that has endured the evolution of football to its modern form. The rivalry has also previously had years that lapsed without games, he added.
After two games in 1893, the teams did not play again until 1901. After another six years without a game, the teams played their fourth game against each other in 1908. In their sixth contest, in 1910, Biddeford High School notched its first win against Thornton Academy with a 13-5 decision.
The teams met sporadically until 1927, which marked the first game of a 28-year consecutive streak that ended in 1954. During that period, Thornton recorded its longest consecutive winning streak against Biddeford, winning every game from 1938 to 1944. Biddeford holds the longest consecutive winning streak between the two, winning nine games in a row from 1991 to 1999.
“Without question, (the Battle of the Bridge) is one of the highlights of the year in Biddeford-Saco,” Stevens said. “It’s one of those games that, regardless of the team’s record, you can really throw out there as a big one.”
Kevin Kezel, head football coach for the Trojans, said the players haven’t yet had a chance to reflect on what future seasons may be like without the Battle of the Bridge, because they’ve been primarily focused on practicing for play against their next opponent each week. As game time approaches however, Kezel said the showdown against their nearest competitor – the last regular season game – always generates a high level of excitement.
Curit, Kezel and Stevens all said it was too early to know whether the two teams would continue the Battle of the Bridge in the future, such as in an exhibition game, if Biddeford High School switches to Class B sports.
“It’s premature to predict what’s going to be the future of the rivalry,” Stevens said. “We’ll have to assess for ourselves and they’ll assess for themselves whether to continue in some form, but we’re not at that stage.”