In Chicopee, pride lies in the sword

CHICOPEE, Mass -- Chad Woodfine was only a sophomore last year, but he saw through the distractions and realized the big picture of his team’s Week 9 game.

It was not important that both his Chicopee High Pacers and the Colts of Chicopee Comprehensive High were both 7-1 and poised to make the Western Mass playoffs.

It was not important that the game was scheduled for primetime on Monday night to draw a bigger crowd.

Instead, what was really important was a sword.

“It’s the biggest rivalry in Western Mass.” Woodfine said of the matchup between Chicopee and Chicopee Comp. “We’ll talk about this game forever, and everyone wants to go out with the Sword in their senior year.”

“This is our super bowl,” Chicopee Comp wide receiver Austin Berneche said. “Winning the Sword is what we need, to have a complete season.”

In what has become known today as “The Sword Game”, Chicopee High and Chicopee Comp square off every year in a game that blends together generations of historic and economic intra-city differences and adds in the bragging rights of the entire city of Chicopee. The end result is a mixture of pride and sportsmanship that annually makes for one of the most intriguing high school football games in the area.

Last year the city’s intersections were blocked off as the Chicopee Police Department escorted the Pacers’ bus from storied Bill Moge field at Szot Park, across town to the new football field at Chicopee Comprehensive High School.

As the game began, a crowd estimated at 5,500 people roared as the Massachusetts Ninth Light Artillery -- a civil war reenactment group -- shot off a 19th century cannon after each period, score and kickoff.

“It was crazy…” Woodfine reminisced. “It felt like we were like NFL players -- it was really big.”

At the end of each game, the mayor of Chicopee presents the winning team with a Sword that was manufactured in the city in the 1890’s. Emblazoned with delicate lettering, the steel sword is a symbol of the division of the school district, the city’s rich industrial history, and athletic dominance on the gridiron.

The rivalry engulfs Chicopee every November, but was forged years ago when the city’s population forced a second high school to be built in 1962.

The Split

Chicopee’s Westover Air Reserve Base is today a source of pride in the area. However at one time, the base caused a split in Chicopee’s school district, and caused the city to grow beyond its limits.

Westover was completed in the early 1940’s and prepared for use during World War II and the Cuban Missile Crisis. But by the mid 1960’s, the base had brought in an unexpected amount of people. Chicopee’s population ballooned to 55,000 people, and most of its inhabitants found the city a suitable place to raise a family.

Accordingly, the city then built Chicopee Comprehensive High School in order to accommodate the excess students. “Comp”, as it is affectionately called today, gave children an opportunity to get a high school education, but also learn a trade.

To keep both high schools equal in enrollment, the city drew an imaginary line on the Chicopee River, and effectively split up the student population. The students on the north side of the river went to Comp, and those on the south went to CHS.

This imaginary line, bisected not only the city’s land and population, but also drew a line through generations of the traditional economy.

The south side of Chicopee is rich with historic mills and factories of the 19th century, while the north is centered on Westover and the remnants of its expansion. All of the newcomers after World War II stayed north of the river and the descendants of the original inhabitants and factory-workers stayed south.

The division created an incentive to the games between the two high schools, and thus created the build up for the Sword Game.

The History of the Mayor’s Sword

“The kids grew up together,” Chicopee coach Alex Efstratios said. “They grew up knowing about the sword, knowing what it means to the Mayor, knowing what it means to the city of Chicopee, and it just brings out that rivalry.”

The first Sword was presented in 1964 after the inaugural game between Comp and CHS (in which Comp upset Chicopee 13-6). The mayor at the time, Edward Lysek, initially gave a naval officer’s sword as the trophy because the game was originally played on Veteran’s Day.

Though the game has since been scheduled for days besides Veteran’s Day, the presentation of a sword to the victor has not lost its significance.

The Latin motto “Industriae Variae” is engraved behind Chicopee Mayor Michael Bissonnette’s desk in the mayor’s office. The term directly translates to “industry varies” in English, and is emblematic of Chicopee’s historical routes.

Although times have now changed, the Cabotville section of the city was filled with bustling factories and a strong downtown area until around the time that Comp was built. The city’s businesses harnessed the power from the Chicopee River to make guns, bandages, brushes, sports equipment and tires to name a few.

But to the football players at Chicopee High and Chicopee Comp, the most significant of those businesses was the Ames Manufacturing Company.

Located directly across the street from city hall, Ames made swords and arms during the Civil War. It was in that foundry, that the Mayor’s Sword was cast in the 1890’s.

“The sword symbolizes both our history and our future,” Bissonnette said.

The sword also signifies the city’s economy and grit. Bruce Socha, a 53-year-old lifelong resident, believes that the cities economy was centered on the work ethic of its inhabitants.

“My parents were the type of folks who when they came home after work, they had something to do to make extra money,” Socha said. “A lot of people had lathes and machinery in their cellars, and they made parts to supply industries out of their cellars or garages.

“We were and still are a very industrious population.”

Current Comp head coach and Chicopee native Marc Schuerfeld echoed the sentiment.

“We’re a working-class town,” Schuerfeld said of Chicopee. “We do have ‘professionals’ that live in this town, but for the most part, everyone gets up early in the morning, and puts in a solid eight hours, five or six days a week.”

The relic is a perfect example of what hard work has accomplished for the city -- on and off the field.

The 2010 Edition

This year, both teams hold 4-4 records and neither team is destined for the playoffs, but that does not take away from the rivalry.

“Even if we were 0-1 and they were 8-0 it doesn’t matter,” Chicopee High’s Daniel Poe said.

“This game means everything. There is just so much hype and it is just so intense.”

“When either team plays each other for the sword, you can pretty much throw the records out the window,” said Schuerfeld, who attended Chicopee High School and played for the legendary Coach Moge.

The date has clearly been circled on both teams’ schedules.

“We want to get revenge for last year,” Comp’s co-captain Alex Shaver said. “We want to run the points up just like they did.”

Last year Chicopee took a resounding 39-6 win from Comp -- but more importantly took back the Sword.

In both Chicopee High and Chicopee Comp buildings’ blueprints, a special section near the entrances was marked down as display cases for the ceremonial trophy. Every day for the past year, Comp players have had to walk into school knowing that they lost the coveted sword.

“Seeing it empty isn’t nice.” Shaver said of the case. “We definitely want to fill it up for the school.”

However heated the rivalry is, the kids always maintain a good attitude after the game. Although the victor holds the Sword and bragging rights, sportsmanship is always a constant.

“We battle each other, we bang and hit and hit, but after the game it’s always a big hug,” Efstratios said.

On Friday night both teams are attending a team dinner that Bissonnette is hosting, in order to celebrate Monday night’s matchup.

Though there is no bad blood between the two teams, there is always fierce competition.

“I think we are pretty evenly matched,” Schuerfeld said about the game. “… I think we’ve got a pretty good chance -- but I won’t take them lightly.”

“It is going to be a war,” Efstratios agreed.