NORWALK -- For the better part of two decades, Sean Ireland has spent Thanksgiving morning at the center of one of the FCIAC's fiercest football rivalries, Norwalk and Brien McMahon, either in the huddle or barking orders to his offense from the sidelines. He's witnessed almost every imaginable outcome--the good, the bad and even the ugly--play out right before him, first in his playing days from 1992 through 1995 as a dual-threat tight end and outside linebacker for the Bears. He still looks back on those times with a touch of nostalgia.
"People talk about the Norwalk-McMahon games for ages. Me and my friends, we still talk about the times when we played them back in 1995," Ireland said. "It's the one game that you'll always remember playing for the rest of your life and a lot has to do because it's on Thanksgiving. It's just a special day."
Ingrained fully in the rivalry, Ireland has juggled an assortment of roles--from wide receivers coach to offensive coordinator to finally, head coach--on Norwalk's coaching staff in the time since his playing days ended.
Having been a part of some of the finest Norwalk-McMahon games ever authored, Ireland is hopeful that when the schools resume their longstanding tradition of meeting on Thanksgiving (10:30 a.m., McMahon's Jack Casagrande Field) for the Sam Testa Trophy, it won't be the final chapter in what has the makings of a fairytale season for the Bears.
In all likelihood, all that's standing between the Bears (7-1) and their first trip to the state playoffs since 1998 is McMahon, which has its sights set on capping an up-and-down season in the spoiler role in the 51st meeting between the schools. The Senators lead the all-time series 31-18-1.
"We've been telling the kids, `We're one game away from getting to our goal.' You can't hide behind that," Ireland said. "The kids know that, everybody in the town knows that and I'm sure McMahon knows that."
Much like Ireland, McMahon head coach AJ Albano holds a deep background of the rivalry, having played wide reciever and defensive back for the Senators, before graduating in 2000.
Although both sides enter this season's matchup heading down different paths, Albano is remindful that records can be fickle. In 2010, the Senators were 6-3 going into Thanksgiving but lost to a sub-.500 Norwalk team 8-7.
"Last year we were telling our kids to throw away the records," Albano said. "I'm sure they're doing the same thing this year."
Saddled with a three-game losing streak that has sent its season south, McMahon (3-6) believes it is well-versed on its opponent. After all, the Bears entered the year as a mere afterthought behind the likes of perennial powers New Canaan, Greenwich, Staples and Darien and in turn, have orchestrated their best start in 13 years.
"They've been under the radar," Albano said. "They're a one-loss football team and I think everyone realizes it. They've had a great season and they've had some great wins."
The Bears have proven to be balanced on both sides of the ball with senior Delshawn Wilson, a first-year starter at quarterback, and senior wide receiver Derick Edwards, anchoring a speedy spread offense. A quartet of physical linebackers--seniors Gil Araujo, Dave Klein, Kenny Francois and Bobby Stringfellow--have held together a defense that's allowed just 15 points a game.
"They're fast, they're strong and they don't shy away from contact, especially Dave Klein (5-foot-7, 165 pounds). Dave sometimes doesn't realize he's 5-foot-7. A guy can be 250 pounds and run right at him and he's going to try and run through him," Ireland said. "We just have guys who love contact, love to hit."
That defense is likely to be tested by a McMahon attack that's equipped with one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the conference, senior Damien Vega, and senior tight end Zack O'Connor, who also stars at defensive end. The Senators have been in nearly every game this season but have fizzled late, blowing double-digit leads in losses to Staples (24-21) and New Canaan (36-33).
"If you watch their film, there's no way you say that's a three-win team. They've just had some of the toughest breaks I've seen in a long, long time and it wasn't just one," Ireland said. "There's one after the other, after the other, after the other. It's credit to their kids and their coaching staff how they come back every week and play hard."
Regardless of which McMahon team the Bears see on Thanksgiving, Ireland insists his team is ready.
"This is the one game every year, that if you can't get excited for, there's something wrong with you," he said.
Brien McMahon (3-6) at Norwalk (7-1)
WHEN: Thursday, 10:30 a.m.
WHERE: Jack Casagrande Field, McMahon High
HISTORY: McMahon leads 31-18-1
LAST YEAR: Senior quarterback Anthony Ferraro scored on a 1-yard run in the second quarter to lift Norwalk to an 8-7 win in Pete Tucci's final game as the Bears' head coach following 13 seasons. The Bears' defense forced one turnover and limited McMahon to just five first downs over the final three quarters, bouncing back from an early 42-yard touchdown catch by junior running back Chris Jerome.
WHAT'S AT STAKE: Along with the Sam Testa Trophy, a long-awaited trip to the Class LL state playoffs will be on the line for Norwalk. The Bears can all but wrap up their first postseason berth since 1998 with a win. McMahon can end its up-and-down season on a high note and play spoiler to its crosstown rival's postseason dreams.