Green Wave football coach Jim Kelliher has a simple message for his players when they first step foot on the Gillette Stadium turf tonight: Soak it in.
For the current generation of football players, Gillette holds the same revered status that the late, great Boston Garden did for their parents and grandparents.
“You go in there and let your body soak in the atmosphere because it’s going to be exciting…It’s the best place you can have a game,” said Kelliher, who has won two of his five Super Bowl titles on that hallowed Foxborough field.
But as game time nears, the 11-1 Abington football team needs to let the aura drift away, and treat it more like a game at Memorial Field.
“[The Gillette field] is 100 yards long, 50-plus yards wide. You gotta get first downs. Everything is the same,” Kelliher said.
“Enjoy the atmosphere but as soon as the game starts the atmosphere doesn’t mean a goddamn thing, OK, because now the only thing you have to be concerned about is that group of guys on the other side, because they’re trying to stop you from getting something done.”
Those guys on the other side will be the Rockland Bulldogs. The same Rockland Bulldogs who play their games less than three miles away from the Green Wave. The same Rockland Bulldogs who have handed Abington their last three losses, including this past October.
“They want another shot at them. Redemption and all that stuff,” Assistant Coach Ed Reilly said.
“We have a lot of respect for them and their program and their coaches and kids and I’m sure they feel the same way about us.”
Senior captain Shea McClellan says the senior-heavy squad wouldn’t be any less motivated if they were facing an unknown school from a different part of the state.
“The motivation is to just go out there and win,” he said. “We’re going to leave it all on the field.”
This is a better Green Wave team than the one that played Rockland eight weeks ago, McClellan said.
“I think we’ve improved every week….there’s always something new to learn every day,” he said.
The last few weeks have been a bit of a roller coaster for the Green Wave. They easily handled Sandwich in the quarterfinals 34-0. But hours before its semifinal tussle with St. Mary’s of Lynn, Abington found out it would be without Kelliher, who was confined to his home under state COVID-19 protocols. The Green Wave overcame a pair of second-half deficits to win 26-20 and earn not just a trip to the Super Bowl, but Kelliher’s 300th victory as a head coach. Abington then shifted focus to its annual Thanksgiving Day showdown with Whitman-Hanson, which it won handily, 31-19. The Division 6 Super Bowl was originally slated for Monday, Dec. 6, but the MIAA announced earlier this week the game was being moved up three days to tonight, as Gillette juggled a possible Revolution playoff game on Sunday.
Reilly said the team knew the game date may be changed, and it has remained prepared and focused.
“This was never an issue for us,” he said. “The experience these kids get, we’ll take a little inconvenience any day of the week.”
Reilly feels the Green Wave team is better positioned going into tonight’s game with its border rival.
“We always say around here you don’t really know what type of team you are or player you are until you go through some adversity. Losing a game helps you out in the long run and that’s what we’re hoping for,” he said.
Kelliher says the team is ready and should represent the town well.
“The kids have earned it. We didn’t have as good a game as we could the last time we met Rockland but we’re playing with lots of excitement and enthusiasm and I think that should continue Friday night,” he said. “We’re feeling good.”
Win or lose, tonight’s game represents the final game the seniors will play together, a milestone McClellan says he’s aware of.
“These are all my best friends. It’s going to be sad, even if I go to play college football because these are the moments I’ll never forget,” he said. “I’ve played with these kids since we were youths, 10 years old, 11. It’s going to be sad. I’m going to miss it.”
Tickets for tonight’s game must be purchased ahead of time through Ticketmaster.