WALLINGFORD, Conn. — Nearly 4,000 fans witnessed a football milestone in Wallingford Wednesday, and it was all about the ladies.
The 50th annual Samaha Bowl, which is a flag football game pitting senior girls from Lyman Hall High School against crosstown rival Sheehan High School, was played on a sun-soaked afternoon at Sheehan and wasn't decided until the very end.
Lyman Hall's Shianna Reeves gave Lyman Hall the lead for good with 00:03 remaining on a 20-yard field goal, leading the Trojans to a 34-31 win and their sixth consecutive win in a game that owns the distinction of being the longest-running powder puff football game in the nation.
The game, named after the late Judy Samaha, a longtime athletic director at both Wallingford high schools, is one that every high school senior female is eligible to play in and often features players that participate in no other sports in high school.
Those who have played through the years were honored during halftime of Wednesday's game with an alumni parade around the Sheehan track. The women were grouped by the decades in which they participated.
The game is annually the second most attended event in Wallingford behind only the 4th of July fireworks.
The following is an essay written by Victoria Kichuk, who played in the 30th anniversary Samaha Bowl for Lyman Hall in 2001. Her coach, Ed Neilander, has asked her to read her essay to his teams every year since.
I'm not exactly sure when it happened; I think it must have been a gradual realization. If it had happened all at once I am sure I would have written down the date and time of when such an epiphany occurred. No, I know that the realization in my own mind that high school really is the time of our lives came to me just as slowly as learning my multiplication tables. No single moment that I can think of helped me come to this conclusion, but there are moments that have only further proven my whole-hearted belief. High school is not the same for everybody. Certain events happen to certain people for better or for worse. At Lyman Hall, Powder Puff is a big part of the high school experience, especially for the girls who take part. I am no football fanatic. I can safely say that before I started Powder Puff, I had no idea about anything involving the game. So why did I join? There is a plethora of reasons, some that just boil down to simple tradition and school pride. Other reasons are more personal, things that only close friends, my family, and the coaches know. Whatever mine, or any other players' reasons may be for playing, it's a lot more than just a game.
Freshman year first exposed me to the emotional thrill ride that accompanies Powder Puff football. At that pep rally, I saw the first images of what I imagined the all-American high school experience to be like: a thousand-plus kids, packed into the old gymnasium, going nuts right along-side their teachers, ready to cheer the team on. The most extraordinary aspect was that the "team" wasn’t just the "guys"... girls showed their stuff and the school supported them equally. The pure excitement of unadulterated school pride was something that only further deepened my love for my then new school. That year, my friends and I all decided that this Powder Puff thing might be something we wanted to do.
Finally, fall, 2001... my senior year... our senior year; time to make good on all of our promises, the promises we all made to ourselves freshmen year and silently kept for reasons that we never foresaw. For me, it was the death of my grandfather, for others, there are equally as personal reasons that turned Powder Puff from a rite of passage at Lyman Hall into a journey leading to the rest of our lives.
The first meeting we had about Powder Puff happened on the 15th of September. On that day, my circle of friends, along with more than 50 other girls climbed up on the cold, dew-covered bleachers of the soccer field and listened intently to the comedic ramblings of our future coaches. We were told of the eternal importance of this game. Not only did we have to reclaim the Samaha trophy stolen from last year's team at the hands of our archenemy, Sheehan, but also we were playing the 30th anniversary game on our home field. Lyman Hall had a long tradition of winning; we had won the first, fifth, tenth, 15th, 20th, and 25th games, as well as many in-between. It was up to us to make sure we continued Lyman Halls tradition of winning the big games. No pressure.
Many of the girls on those bleachers were girls I went to elementary school with. Many girls I had no idea what their names were. The common denominator among all of us that day would not be seen until the day of our first practice, the following Saturday, at 8:30 in the morning. Any delusions any one may have had about easy practices and la-dee-da coaches were quickly cast away. I never doubted the fact that the coaches were serious about their role and the mission to reclaim the Samaha trophy, but I admit to underestimating the methods they would use to accomplish that. The coaches were not in any way about to go easy on us because we were girls, and we weren’t about to use our lack of a Y chromosome as an excuse for anything. We were all there to prove something in one way or another, a statement that was reiterated in a speech made by Coach Neilander on our third practice.
"Powder Puff means a lot of things for different people. Each girl here has her own reason for being for being part of this team. Whether its because your father never pays attention to you, or you want to make new friends, or your mother played for Lyman Hall years ago, or someone died... whatever your motivation is, whatever is your reason for giving up your Saturday mornings to come and roll around in the mud while we scream our heads off--that is what Powder Puff is. The importance of the Powder Puff game is inside the heart of each and every player. Together, we make a team, and that is the only way to win."
So week in and week out, we try to remember our personal motivation as many a girl grumbles out of bed and comes to those Saturday morning practices still trying to wipe the sleep from her eyes. As the coaches gradually learn our names, we can see their individual styles and the personalities slowly revealed. Neilander is loud and in your face, undoubtedly penting-up his week's frustrations and saving them to use at practice. Others play less obvious roles in our development as a team.
A long weekend arrives, the first in November, and as always, we have practice. We are fortunate to have it on Sunday afternoon, a warm, clear day that only hints at the arrival of fall with a cool breeze. More than 50 girls have showed up for practice in deference to the numerous meetings coaches had during the week about lack of participation and interest. We're all ready to go after two weeks without a real practice. The coaches are ready. We line up to do our opening cals (calisthenics).
"Where's Neilander?" asks a new girl at her first practice.
"Oh, he'll be here. He'll come speeding down the driveway at 80 miles an hour, jump out of his car, and start yelling at us from the parking lot," replies a defensive lineman. While our backs are turned to face the leader doing stretches, we hear a familiar yell.
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! YA GO A WEEK WITHOUT DOING CALS AND YA FORGOT THE WHOLE DARN THING," bellows Coach Neilander. The new girls at practice look up from their stretches with worried faces. The girls who have been at practice every week simply smile and shake their heads.
“Fashionably late, as always,” someone whispers with a smile.
Later, as the daylight wanes with the setting sun and the night begins its cool descent upon the field, we're still practicing. The orange rays slanting through the trees cast shadows on the field, making a silhouette of every play, like a Peter Pan version of our team. Each shadow is two times larger than the girl it portrays, and our movements make it seem like we're trying to catch them. Like Peter Pan, we're doomed to fail. Our shadows elude us each time, but stay to watch our game until the sun is seen no more. At dusk, the coaches call it in, rewarding our good practice with some manly words of encouragement. As a team, we’ve been upgraded from "Suck" to "Not so bad." The coaches leave us in the huddle, the first time its been up to one of us to call it. We gather in a large group, our hands focused in one central location, holding on to whatever hand is nearest. Giggling and talking, we all wait for someone to say it. We wait. Suddenly I hear it come from my own mouth.
"HOW ARE WE GONNA WIN?"
"HOW ARE WE GONNA WIN?"
"HUHHHH!!!!! YEAH!!! WHOOO!!!"
By now, we've had six practices, some infinitely better than the one before. The coaches are now able to tell which girls honestly care about the game and reward them with the Dirty Sock Award. Bonds are being formed among girls that never talked to each other before, or simply lost touch over the years. The team takes pride in its small accomplishments; the skinny girls who pushed the sled 10 feet, the slow girl who grabbed a flag, the unpopular girl who made a big play. We are a team now, brought together by the timing of our births and the tradition of our town. There comes to be an overwhelming irony in the events that take place at each practice. Girls are playing what is considered to be a man's game, yet very few of the girls see what they are doing as remotely revolutionary or feminist for that matter.
Our coaches are all men; men we've had as teachers, yet have come to know better through practice. Men who are coaching us out of pure love... love for the game, love for the school, love for the students that they make into players. It is an unspoken love, however, at least in the traditional sense of spoken emotion. They love us when they tell us to drop down and roll on the cold, wet, dirty ground. They love us when they say to hit the girl standing across from us as hard as we can. They love us when they tell us to get off the field because we suck. But they love us the most when they take our disappointments as theirs and doubt themselves because we messed up. That is when the team becomes something a little closer to family. That is when you see the true spirit of Lyman Hall's Powder Puff Team show. That's when that spirit turns us all into something a little bigger than any one of us may fully comprehend.
In the end it's not about winning... winning is a superficial and overused word developed by overachievers through the ages with a lust for glory and a penchant for pride. In the end it's not even about a trophy or bragging rights. Powder Puff is about unity, about having a goal and getting behind it, sacrificing personal liberties along the way for the betterment of the team. It's about being smart enough to know when to be a leader and when to shut your mouth. Ultimately, years from now, we'll see that it was about coming together, one last time, as a group of kids who were fortunate enough to enjoy each other's company as we went through the perils of growing up. Coming together one last time, to play a game for the glory of high school...one of the greatest times of our lives.
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