November 16, 2016 08:30PM
By Matthew Zabierek
WALLINGFORD — When Nick Economopoulos coached Lyman Hall in the high school’s first powderpuff football game against Sheehan in 1971, he had no idea how popular the game would become 45 years later.
“No one had any conception it would turn into what it’s turned into,” said Economopoulos, who continued to coach Lyman Hall’s team for over two decades.
Over 45 years, the annual Samaha Bowl, named after founder Judy Samaha, has become an institution and beloved tradition in Wallingford. Surrounding towns have also adopted the annual Thanksgiving week tradition.
Since 1971, the flag football game has been held between senior girls at Lyman Hall and Sheehan high schools. The game is held every year the day before Thanksgiving. All students at the schools receive a half-day of school in order to attend the game, which is sold out annually and attracts about 4,000 people.
“It’s the biggest school spirit day of the year,” said Economopoulos, a former teacher at Lyman Hall.
The Samaha Bowl is believed to be the oldest powderpuff game in the state, and one of the oldest in the country. Though Samaha originally founded the game as “a way to help add to the excitement” of Thanksgiving week, the game’s competition quickly mounted, according to Record-Journal archives.
After losing to Sheehan 37-0 in 1973, Economopoulos, a volunteer coach, decided he needed to take preparation for the game more seriously.
“I said, ‘If I’m going to keep doing this, things have to change,’” he said.
The next year, Economopoulos began using evaluations in deciding which position each girl would play. His methods included measuring players’ hands.
“I had them hold their hand up to mine, and the girls with big hands were receivers and the girls with small hands were put on the line,” he said.
Economopoulos also timed how fast each girl could run with a stopwatch, placing the fastest girls at running back.
By 1990, the game gained so much recognition that ESPN aired clips on a highlight show, according to Record-Journal archives.
Today, each team holds 10 three-hour practices throughout October and November to prepare for the game, said Cheryl Colwick, who has coached Sheehan’s team for the last 22 years.
“A lot of people think it’s just the game that’s special, but it’s not. It’s the process too,” she said.
When Colwick began coaching the Sheehan team in 1994, only 45 to 50 girls participated. Today, over 100 girls from each school participate in the game each year. Colwick added that of Sheehan’s 106 senior girls, only three are not participating in this year’s game.
Colwick said that, over the years, she has coached players whose mothers played in the game. This “passing down of tradition” is special for families, she said.
Colwick, who participated in powderpuff football in Cheshire as a student, said Wallingford’s Samaha Bowl is distinguished from others.
“It’s a totally different environment in Wallingford. No one else has the same authentic feeling we have.”
This year’s Samaha Bowl will be held on Nov. 23 at 2:30 p.m. at Sheehan High School.