At the start of the season, the Tewksbury High roster hardly resembled the squad that upset Reading to advance to the EMass. Division 2 Super Bowl against Duxbury at Gillette Stadium.
To many programs, the graduation of 18 seniors, including talented players like running back Chris Bettano (16 touchdowns) and quarterback Kevin Saunders, can be devastating.
However, Tewksbury coach Brian Aylward does not agree with the notion that a senior-heavy roster is the key to success.
A trio of juniors, quarterback Johnny Aylward , back Ed Matovu , and wide receiver Kevin Dick , along with sophomore back James Sullivan , helped the Redmen (5-4) lock up the Merrimack Valley Division 2 title and punch their way to the playoffs with a 34-13 win over Methuen Friday, improving to 4-0 in conference play.
“These guys have got to realize that we don’t care if you’re a junior, a sophomore, a senior, or a freshman even,” said the coach.
“Right now, you have an opportunity, and you have to jump on this opportunity like it’s the only opportunity you’re going to get. Every game, we ask them to play that same way.”
“I’m proud of what the kids are able to accomplish. They’ve worked really hard from the offseason on, and a lot of them are playing contributing roles for the first time, and they’ve prepared themselves well.”
One of those players is his son, Johnny, who received minimal playing time at quarterback last season when Saunders was injured.
The younger Aylward entered the season vying for the starting position with senior Zak DiRocco ; the two split snaps in the opener, a 15-12 non-league loss to Lincoln-Sudbury, but Aylward has started every game since.
“I knew Kevin [Saunders] was leaving and I’d have an opportunity to be the starting quarterback, so I put in a lot of work in the offseason,” Aylward said. “I’ve been dreaming of playing quarterback for the Redmen my whole life, with my father being the coach.”
Senior captain Kyle Pandolph , the Redmen’s defensive anchor at linebacker, is proud of the hard work the underclassmen have put forward.
“All year long, they’ve been working because they knew they’d have a chance,” Pandolph said. “And it means a lot that they want to put that much work in and they want to help us out.”
It’s no secret that Tewksbury plays one of the toughest schedules in the MVC Division 2, drawing crossover games against Central Catholic (8-1, 3-0), Lowell (7-2, 2-1), and Andover (8-1, 1-1), while also playing Lincoln-Sudbury (8-0), which has captured the Dual County League Large for the third consecutive season.
After their loss to L-S, the Redmen bounced back the following week to beat second-place Haverhill (7-2, 3-1) in what proved to be the decisive conference victory.
After falling to Andover, 51-42, in Week 5 and Central Catholic, 16-7, the next week, the Redmen won their next three games, beating Lawrence, North Andover, and Methuen to clinch the division for the second straight season.
For a young squad with just 12 seniors, including three that are injured and four who are first-year varsity players, the tough schedule has helped mold the Redmen into a team poised for another run at a Super Bowl title.
“Any team can be as good as they want to be,” said Matovu, who has rushed for eight touchdowns this season. “It’s just about how much they want to work. We’ve had a lot of tough games, and all the games that we lost are games we’ve been able to win, but we made mistakes. But it’s all about who wants it more.”
Central Catholic coach Chuck Adamopoulos was impressed with Tewksbury’s composure earlier this season.
“Tewksbury plays a really good nonleague schedule, and there’s no question it makes you better,” he said. “It makes you better for league games, and it’s made them a tough team.”
Even though the Redmen have already clinched, Aylward is not looking ahead to a rematch against Middlesex Liberty champion Reading (9-0).
“My job is to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Aylward said.
Instead, the focus is on the last two regular-season games against Dracut and Wilmington. “We’re looking at it as two more outings to get better,” Aylward said. “There’s things to work on, and nothing has changed. We want to be better each time out.”
North Andover coach John Rafferty and his players take pride in their running game. And the numbers don’t lie:
The Knights’ last three starting backs: John Iannone (class of 2011), Jack Murphy (2010), and Zac Iovanella (2009) all eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing plateau their senior season.
Andrew Foote , who graduated in 2006, rushed for over 4,000 career yards and set a school record with 75 touchdowns. None, however, matched the performance of Nick Oswald . In a 56-28 win over Dracut, the 5-foot-7, 190-pound back rushed for a monstrous 402 yards and four touchdowns on 39 carries, as he surpassed the 1,000-yard mark.
“He’s built low to the ground and that’s an asset for him,” Rafferty said, in his 12th season as head coach. “He has great feet, and he can change direction abruptly. He has enough giddy-up that if he hits the opening, he can make the most out of it.”
As Rafferty praised Oswald’s performance, he quickly attributed the success to the Knights offensive line, under the direction of assistant Kevin Slattery .
With the unit of junior center Colin Couillard , flanked by senior guards Nate Hitchcock and Tom O’Mara , and sophomore tackle Yanni Falaras and junior tackle Justin Rice , Oswald was able to shred Dracut’s defense.
“We weren’t running just to one side it,” Rafferty said. “It was the left side and the right side, and those kids up front did a great job. They have a heck of a line coach. But it’s been a bit of a work in progress for [the line]. The only returning starter is Nate Hitchcock. But as a result, they’ve gotten better and better.”
Tribute to Thakkar
Wakefield High will wear the initials ‘BT’ on their helmets the rest of the season to honor 2001 graduate Bunty Thakkar , who died Sunday. A free safety/tailback on the 2000 Super Bowl championship squad, Thakkar returned as freshman coach for five seasons before becoming dance team assistant coach this fall.
“Throughout his life, Bunty faced a constant onslaught of critical health challenges,” said Wakefield coach Mike Boyages. “He met each and every one of these challenges head-on whiile never losing his positive outlook on life.”
Donations to help out the Thakkar family can be sent to the Warrior Club, with “Thakkar Family” on the memo line, to PO Boston 442, Wakefield, MA 01880. Also, donations are being accepted under the Donate section at www.wakefieldathletics.com. . . . Shawsheen defeated Whittier 37-12 Saturday to clinch the Commonwealth Large title. Senior running back Paul DePlacido rushed for 313 yards and five touchdowns. . . . Lowell Catholic (8-1) lost its first game of the season Saturday to Cathedral in a 24-16 battle. . . . Burlington beat Stoneham 48-28 Friday to clinch the Middlesex Freedom division.
Anthony Gulizia can be reached at email@example.com.