The atmosphere surrounding the Stilly Cup can be overwhelming.
Arlington High football coach John Boitano says it’s more than just a game. “There are a lot of other pressures,” he said.
In his first season as Arlington’s head coach, Boitano received a menacing phone call at about 2 a.m. It came during one of the days leading up to the Stilly Cup, the annual football contest that pits the Arlington Eagles against the Stanwood Spartans. The audibly passionate pro-Arlington caller had just four words for Boitano: “You better beat Stanwood!”
This is pretty serious stuff, Boitano realized.
“It is a really big deal, and part of it is because the communities have had a rivalry for decades and decades and decades,” he said. “It goes a long way back.”
Named for the Stillaguamish River Valley that links the two communities, the idea for the Stilly Cup was spawned in the late 1960s by two pals who also happened to be opposing coaches: Arlington’s Don Gibbons and Stanwood’s Terry Ennis.
“We were good friends and we had a friendly rivalry,” said Gibbons, who became Arlington’s head coach in 1968. “We thought it would be kind of fun to have a special trophy between Stanwood and Arlington. We just kind of dreamed that thing up.”
The rivalry grew over the years and both communities latched on, regardless of how good the teams were.
This season both squads are undefeated in the Western Conference North Division. Stanwood (3-0 Wesco North, 3-1 overall) and Arlington (4-0, 4-0) square off at 7 p.m. today at Arlington High School. Throw in that this is Homecoming Week for Arlington, and consider this will be the first game current trophy-holder Stanwood has played in Arlington’s new stadium, and you have a football powder keg.
“There’s a lot of things adding to that game besides the Cup,” said Jim Piccolo, Stanwood’s athletic director.
“On top of just the community rivalry, when you have so many more things on the line it makes it that much more intense,” added Stanwood assistant principal Tom Boehme, who coached the Spartans from 1989-2000.
Arlington craves payback for last year’s game, which it lost 31-14 at Stanwood. Led by an emotional group of seniors, the Spartans built a 31-0 lead through three quarters on their way to capturing the Cup for the first time since 1998.
The loss dropped Arlington to 0-2. It finished the season 2-8.
“That was our poorest game of the whole year,” Boitano said. “That was a lousy year, and that was the worst of it.”
This time, Arlington senior quarterback Kenny Gunter said he and the Eagles are ready. “Stilly Cup means everything this year. It’s just a whole new team.”
“They lost pretty bad last year. They’re gonna be hungry for it,” said Stanwood senior running back/placekicker Jon Rockstad, who scored two touchdowns in last year’s game.
When a school regains the Cup, as Stanwood did last year, representatives from the losing team present it during an assembly at the winning school. Stanwood students went wild last fall when Arlington surrendered the trophy in the Spartans gymnasium, Rockstad said. He’ll do all he can to avoid experiencing the ceremony on the flip side, but history is stacked against him.
Arlington has dominated the rivalry over the years. Since 1971, the Eagles have won 24 times in 33 tries, including 13 shutouts. Jim Kavaney, now an assistant coach at Lakewood High, guided Arlington through a particularly robust stretch. He coached the Eagles from 1976-86, when Arlington won the Stilly Cup nine times by an average score of 28-7. The run included five consecutive shutouts, from ‘78 through ‘82, and two 58-0 drubbings. Back then both teams played in the Northwest League, but the intensity was the same as it is today.
“It was the big game of the year,” said Kavaney, whose Eagles won Class state titles in ‘79 and ‘82 and were runners-up in ‘81. “The kids, they did not want to lose to Stanwood. You didn’t have to do much to get them focused. Just say ‘Stanwood’.”
When asked what stood out to him about the rivalry, Kavaney recalled extra-hard hits and unusually high scores. He also cited a Stilly Cup played at Stanwood in the early ’80s where rowdy students mixed it up before kickoff. Students from both schools were already fighting in the parking lot when the Arlington players walked off the team bus, Kavaney said.
“It got pretty ugly there for a while.”
The schools have since increased the security presence, Kavaney said.
Though emotions spill over from time to time, the Stilly Cup essentially is about bringing people together. Current Stanwood coach Dick Abrams saw his Spartans fall to Arlington 33-6 in 2002, his first season at the school. But Stanwood’s convincing victory last year brought out the home crowd’s appreciation.
“I’ve been really kind of amazed by how much it means to the community,” Abrams said.
The coaches and players linked by the Stilly Cup all talk about how close-knit the Stanwood and Arlington communities are, how everyone seems to know everyone, and how they all know their team is going to win.
In fact, the communities are so close that Gibbons, the former Arlington coach who helped start the Stilly, constantly faces a geographic dilemma. His home on Happy Valley Road has a Stanwood address, yet the property is officially located within the Arlington School District.
Hmm. Who do you think he’ll root for tonight?