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Pilgrim to play Thanksgiving game against Johnston after rival Toll Gate bows out

West Bay

WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — For the past five years, Warwick’s two high schools have taken to the gridiron every Thanksgiving morning.

But this year, that tradition has officially been broken.

12 News has learned Toll Gate High School has bowed out of the annual rivalry game due to a lack of players.

Toll Gate’s head coach, James Stringfellow, said he heard from Principal Candace Caluori shortly after she got out of an hours-long meeting on the issue.

“I just got a phone call that the game was canceled and that was it,” Stringfellow said. He did not elaborate on why the team couldn’t participate.

The cancelation comes amid a COVID-19 outbreak at Pilgrim, which was tied to a homecoming dance earlier this month.

Shortly after the school switched to remote learning due to the outbreak, the school named a new acting principal, but didn’t explain why Principal Gerald Habershaw was being replaced.

Blake Simpson, the head coach of Pilgrim’s football team, said none of the cases have been linked to the football team.

Simpson didn’t learn of Toll Gate’s decision until Tuesday afternoon. He said his team was disappointed to learn they would not be facing Toll Gate, especially after last year’s game was canceled due to the pandemic.

But even after learning their Thanksgiving game was in jeopardy, Simpson said his team continued practicing anyway.

“Just to prepare and hope that someone would have bowed out of a Thanksgiving game and they’d be able to play one more game,” Simpson said.

Upon learning Toll Gate had pulled out, Simpson immediately began brainstorming ways to keep the season from being cut short.

“I just kind of thought out the other options that we had,” he said.

That’s when he remembered that Johnston High School’s football team had put out a call two weeks ago asking if any teams were available to play on Thanksgiving.

Once Simpson connected with Johnston’s head coach, they decided Pilgrim would square off against Johnston instead on Thursday morning.

Simpson said his team is thrilled to get one last game under their belts.

“They’re just excited,” he said. “I mean, they didn’t really care who we were gonna play. If it came down to just playing ourselves, they would still be excited to play on Thanksgiving because it’s such a great tradition for high school football.”

Pilgrim senior Daniel Halliwell said while he was upset to learn he wouldn’t get one last chance to beat their rival on Thanksgiving, he’s grateful for the chance to play.

“These last few years, all I wanted to do was end on a win against Toll Gate and be able to play against the city rival and keep the tradition going,” Halliwell explained. “But Johnston is a little bit better than Toll Gate, so we’ll have a great time playing them.”

Pilgrim quarterback Connor Widmer said while he was also disappointed to learn they wouldn’t be playing Toll Gate, he’s thrilled that they will still be taking to the field one last time.

“It’s been a tradition since my freshman year to [play Toll Gate],” Widmer said. “It’s kind of a bummer that we can’t keep that tradition, but it is what it is.”

Kickoff is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Thanksgiving at Pilgrim High School.

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