TOMS RIVER – There is not a longer-running Thanksgiving Day football rivalry in the Shore Conference than Lakewood and Toms River South.
The two Ocean County schools will take the gridiron for the 99th time when they walk onto the field at Toms River South’s Detwiler Stadium at 11 a.m. on Thursday. It is a game that Lakewood head coach LJ Clark has not missed for as long as he can remember.
“This is a great day for Lakewood, not just for the football team, but for the community,” Clark said. “I’ve been coaching for 13 years and I played here, too; so I have been a part of this game for 17 years. Even when I was playing in college (at William Paterson), I would always come home for this game. I don’t think there has ever been a year where I was not at this game.”
While Toms River South leads the all-time series, 55-39-4, Lakewood has won the last two years. This season, Lakewood will enter the game 1-9 and Toms River South is 2-8. But Clark said the records go out the window when the players take the field for this game.
“We don’t even pay attention to the records for this game,” Clark said. “We just go out there and play football. It’s great for the kids to just go out and play and not have to worry about the standings or anything else.”
While there are no outside implications for anything outside of this game, Clark said the players like to end their season with a win. Having a game on Thanksgiving gives players an opportunity to do that without facing the pressures of a state playoff game.
“One year I was coaching at a camp and I asked the players who won their last game of the season,” Clark said. “It was just two Lakewood kids who raised their hand, because they played on Thanksgiving. That’s the great thing about it because unless you win a state championship, nobody is going to win their last game of the season. Having this game is a great thing because regardless of if we make the playoffs or not, the kids have an opportunity to end their season with a win, and that’s always a good feeling.”
Repeated attempts to contact Toms River South’s head coach and athletic director were not returned in time for this story. But Clark mentioned a cool tradition that Toms River South does for their alumni who come back into town for this game.
“I know Toms River South lets anybody who played in the band while they were in high school to come back and play in their band for this game,” Clark said. “It’s pretty cool to see some older people playing in the band for this game.”
With fewer games being played on Thanksgiving this year than ever before, Clark is hopeful these two teams continue to play as long as people come back and support their alma mater, which he hopes never stops.
“I have seen people who I haven’t seen in 15 years at this game every year, because people are always coming back for this game,” Clark said. “It’s a great way to start the holiday, and Thanksgiving would not be the same without it.”