One of Mike Oliva’s first dates with now-wife Kristin came inside a cramped gym. She brought the sports-mad Oliva to her alma mater, Pearl River High School, for a boys basketball game against nearby Tappan Zee.
As an Elmsford native who graduated from Iona Prep, Oliva’s indoctrination to the school’s raucous, blue-clad student section and friendly home confines represented a trip to some exotic, far-off land.
“I didn’t know anything about Pearl River. I didn’t know anything about Rockland County,” he said. “I walked into the game at Pearl River and I was like, ‘What? This is phenomenal.’ It was a sea of blue, a sea of red. I said, ‘Where am I, Hoosiers?’ “
Of course, seeing those passions surge against one special opponent isn’t what makes Oliva’s adopted community unique. It’s that Pearl River is the rare school with two chief rivals, Tappan Zee and Nanuet. Oliva’s football team (he is a third-year coach) has played Nanuet for the Little Brown Jug since 1961 and has competed with Tappan Zee for the Orange Bowl since 1977.
The teams are scheduled to meet in the 32nd Orange Bowl at 7 Friday night at Tappan Zee High School.
“Nanuet has always been the bigger rivalry, especially to the old-timers here,” retired Pearl River athletic director Tom Doherty said. “I guess if there’s a pecking order, it’s Nanuet, especially in football. But it really puts Pearl River in an unusual spot. Nobody has two rivalries like this.”
Ironically, the Orange Bowl originated in large part because of Nanuet, which departed the Rockland County Athletic League in 1977 to join Section 1. So to honor the winner of Pearl River and Tappan Zee, the Knights of Columbus in Blauvelt sponsored a trophy and the game was redubbed as the Orange Bowl.
The rivalry made sense. Both schools sit in the Town of Orangetown and the players had begun to compete locally for the same recreation department.
“We had already been playing, but they started calling it the Orange Bowl,” said Pearl River wrestling coach Grier Yorks, who played in the 1978-79 Orange Bowls. “It made it special. Because we didn’t have Nanuet, that made it our big rivalry.”
Pearl River played both teams those first two years, but the Little Brown Jug game went on hiatus from 1979-82. That and three straight competitive games quickly built the Orange Bowl’s status. The teams played to a 0-0 tie the first year. Pearl River became the series’ first winner, in 1978, when it nearly squandered a 21-0 lead before stopping a Tappan Zee two-point conversion in the fourth quarter of a 21-20 victory. The Dutchmen rebounded to win 7-0 the next year.
Although Nanuet has remained Pearl River’s chief rival in football, the Orange Bowl has steadily maintained and grown its stature. It has been competitive, with Pearl River holding a 16-14-1 advantage.
“It will be as big as any football game that you will see in Rockland County in terms of enthusiasm,” said Frank McGarvey, a 1959 Pearl River grad who was a teacher and coach in the district and is now the school’s equipment manager. “Pearl River and Nanuet is big, but it’s about the Jug, not about the people. I would say they’re equal because Pearl River and Tappan Zee is really big. I think the fact that we’re such rivals in all other sports, it makes it that much more special.”
Pearl River may not experience both games this year. With Nanuet in Class B and no rivalry week built into the Section 1 schedule, the teams are not scheduled to play for the second straight year.
Even if that game doesn’t come to fruition, the Pirates will have one other game to win. Oliva helped create a flag football league in Orangetown, the Little Bucks, that has attracted over 300 kids from kindergarten through eighth grade. They will compete against the Tappan Zee team in the Tangerine Bowl at halftime of the Orange Bowl.
“Everyone is pretty jacked up and excited about Friday night,” said Oliva, who now lives in Pearl River with his wife and three kids. “Even the middle school kids are excited about the game.”