Div. II: 'Business as usual' as Bobcats gird for Portsmouth and Lenehan's finale
When the final whistle sounds Saturday afternoon, it will mark the end of an era unmatched in New England high school football history.
Legendary Plymouth Regional High School coach Chuck Lenahan will lead the Bobcats one final time in 43 years at the helm when No. 1 Plymouth hosts No. 2 Portsmouth at 1 p.m. for the NHIAA Division II championship.
As the finale to the region's most successful high school football coaching career neared its finale, Lenahan this week did what he's always done: deflect the spotlight to his players, especially his senior class.
For Lenahan, 70, the pride and tradition of Plymouth football supercedes any personal accolades.
"It's not about the coaches," he said of the approach he and his staff are taking toward Saturday. "It's business as usual. The championship game — that comes first. It's the seniors' last game, and that matters more than anything."
The players themselves have tried to balance that "business as usual" mantra with the knowledge that it will be Lenahan's last time on the sidelines as he attempts to claim his 20th state championship. "In the back of our minds, we still keep mentioning that it's our last week as seniors, but man, after 43 years, it's his last week, too," said senior quarterback and captain Collin Sullivan. "There has been a sense of urgency to really make this week count and make it memorable, but for the most part, it's been a normal week."
Lenahan's career coaching record heading into the game stands at 355-70-1, the 355 representing the most coaching victories in New England high school football history. In addition to the 19 state championships, the Bobcats have been runner-up 11 times. During his tenure, Plymouth has reeled off winning streaks of 44 and 57 games.
Lenahan was named National High School Coach of the Year in 2004 and 2012, and earlier this year, he was inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame.
He prefers not to discuss any of that, choosing to let his accomplishments speak for themselves. It's been that way pretty much since Lenahan became head coach in 1971.
"He's solid. He doesn't miss practice, he doesn't change a lot," said longtime Lenahan assistant Jim Bownes, who also is stepping down after Saturday's game. "Some of the jokes we have as coaches are, 'Why are we doing it this way? Well, that's because it's the way we did it in 1973.' It's worked."
The Bobcats (10-1) will face a Portsmouth team (10-1) that handed them their only loss of the season, a 27-22 defeat in Plymouth on Oct. 19. Portsmouth has won 10 in a row after losing its opening game to Trinity of Manchester, 58-37.
"Our kids know that any team beating a team twice is a huge accomplishment, and it's going to be even tougher this time, and it definitely wasn't easy the first time," Portsmouth coach Brian Pafford said of the rematch with Plymouth.
From the Clippers' perspective, Saturday is about them and the Bobcats, not about the drama surrounding the opposing head coach.
"I don't see us being the bad guy," Pafford said. "I just see two good football teams trying to play against each other. We're trying to keep (Lenahan's retirment) to the side because this is about two teams. It's a state championship game."
Whether Plymouth wins or loses that game, its next head coach will have huge shoes to fill. Lenahan is leaving, and he's taking with him two assistants who have been at his side for 30 years, Bownes and Tom Donahue.
But Lenahan, who also serves as the school's athletics director, isn't worried about choosing successors. Not at the moment anyway.
"I think I'll leave that alone," he said. 'We've got some good candidates in house, and hopefully we get someone in house and we keep it going. We'll worry about that after Saturday."
For one more game, it's business as usual.