Football: Is it time to put rivalry to rest?

Jake Roberts will quarterback Shelton in its Thanksgiving Day game with Derby.

Traditions are great, but sometimes change is necessary.

With that said, Derby and Shelton High officials should be thinking about ending the long-running tradition of playing each other on Thanksgiving Day and looking at other potential matchups, if they are not already.

Why? It is a fair question.

Derby-Shelton is one of the longest rivalries in American high school football, dating back to 1904 with 106 games played through 2016.

It is more than just a football game, with players from Derby and Shelton coming together for a luncheon held by the Derby-Shelton Rotary the week of the game.

It is a reunion of sorts with former players and alumni of both schools attending the game, although not in the numbers they used to.

But the centerpiece is the football game, and that has become noncompetitive far more often than not in recent years.

Numbers best tell the story.

Shelton has won 17 of the last 18 games between the two schools, and 14 straight. If you want to go back further, the Gaels are 27-6-1 over the last 34 years.

You have to go all the way back to 1987 — three decades ago — to find the last time the Red Raiders beat Shelton at Ryan Field in Derby.

The games over the last 18 years have typically not been close. Aside from the lone Derby victory during that span, a 13-12 win on a frozen Finn Stadium turf in 2002, just two of the Shelton wins were by less than 14 points.

And the trend line has been getting worse. Shelton has won by an average score of 51.3-8.8 over the last four years. That is with the 50-point rule, running time and the Shelton coaching staff typically pulling its starters long before the final whistle.

Sure, if Derby and Shelton keep playing long enough, Derby will win again. But when, and how often? Don’t expect it to happen this year.

The 7th-ranked Gaels, expected to be largely in rebuild mode this year after graduating 28 seniors and relying largely on an inexperienced junior class, have shocked just about everyone by going 8-1 and clinching their fourth straight state playoff appearance.

But they still need to beat Derby to secure a Class LL quarterfinal home game, so a letdown is unlikely. And most of this year’s Gael team is expected return next season.

I know there will be old timers from both Derby and Shelton who will grumble about never giving up, about how great the rivalry was when they played, and that our society is becoming soft.

I’m not a participation trophy kind of guy.

If Derby’s football program hadn’t fallen considerably from its glory days — while Shelton has developed into a perennial title contender — or if Derby and Shelton were even remotely the same size, I’d say the onus is on Derby to get better.

But Derby’s glory days are long gone, and don’t appear to be coming back any time soon. The Red Raiders (3-5) haven’t played in a football state playoff game since 1990, when they won the Class S title.

Derby already admitted it didn’t belong playing with the Shelton’s of the world when it jumped ship from the Southern Connecticut Conference to the calmer waters of the Naugatuck Valley League eight years ago.

In the largely less-relentless NVL, Derby has been able to be competitive, although it has slipped to just a 5-13 record over the last two seasons, with games remaining against Seymour and Shelton to round out this season.

Meanwhile, Shelton hasn’t had a losing season since 2005, winning 100 games in the dozen years since, with at least two more games to go this season.

As to size, the two schools are almost as far apart as two Connecticut high school football teams can get.

Shelton, with 776 boys enrolled in the 2016-2017 school year (the most recent data), is the 18th largest high school in Connecticut, out of 190.

Derby, on the other hand, is 168th with 200 total boys.

But the disparity in football is worse because virtually all of the schools smaller than Derby either don’t field a team, or are part of a co-op with another school.

Using MaxPreps to compare varsity rosters, Shelton lists 64 players this season, none of whom are freshmen. Derby lists 39 players, 17 of whom are freshmen.

Even the staunchest of supporters for continuing the game would have a hard time countering those numbers. The matchup just doesn’t make sense any more.

As I said at the beginning, a change should be considered. I don’t advocate ending the series unless there is a path that makes sense for both schools.

For Derby, there are Thanksgiving Day openings fairly regularly among smaller schools as some abandon football, and new co-op teams are formed.

For Shelton, from the outside looking in, there is what would seem to be a ready-made rivalry waiting in the wings in the form of Xavier of Middletown, a fellow Class LL and SCC Tier 1 school that has been without a Thanksgiving Day foe since Middletown High School ended their rivalry a few years ago.

If-and-when the Derby-Shelton rivalry ends, it won’t be easy to walk away.

The two schools have had a great run playing each other. But perhaps the rivalry really ended 20 or so years ago, and change may be overdue.

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