On a night when the Tewksbury High football team could have locked up its first playoff berth in 15 years if things had gone right, nearly nothing did, and the Redmen suffered a heart-breaking 27-20 loss to Haverhill on a last minute touchdown.
Tewksbury could do little to stop the stellar passing effort of Haverhill quarterback Tommy Morgan, who completed 16-of-24 passes for 241 yards and two touchdowns, matching a super human effort from Tewksbury senior running back Chris Bettano.
Bettano, who had rushed for 249 yards and three touchdowns against Andover back in September, somehow managed to eclipse that amazing total by two yards, carrying 37 times for 251 yards and scoring all three of Tewksbury's touchdowns in the game. The 5-9, 160-pound senior was all but unstoppable, twisting, turning, cutting back and breaking tackles on carry after carry. Bettano eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark for the season, finishing the night with 1,229 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns on the year.
Unfortunately for Bettano and his teammates, the only thing that stopped Tewksbury's superstar running back was a myriad of untimely penalties, dropped passes, poorly executed place-kicks and costly turnovers that killed several Tewksbury drives and set up two of Haverhill's four touchdowns.
"It's frustrating," said TMHS head coach Brian Aylward. "Those things kill you. I thought we did some good things offensively but the turnovers and the penalties killed us."
The loss drops Tewksbury to 5-4 on the season, 2-2 in Merrimack Valley Conference Division 2 play. The Redmen could have clinched the MVC Division 2 championship and an MIAA playoff berth with a win.
But luck was not on Tewksbury's side, especially when starting quarterback Kevin Saunders suffered a second quarter leg injury and did not play a down in the final two periods of the game. Sophomore quarterback Johnny Aylward was impressive in relief of Saunders, leading the Redmen on two long scoring drives in the second half, but Morgan and the Hillies' talented receiving corps made the big plays when it counted the most.
Ironically, the Redmen held Haverhill's highly-touted senior running back Chance Brady to just 57 yards on 16 carries, only to watch Morgan step into the spotlight when Brady couldn't get the job done.
"We knew they were capable of that," Aylward said. "We watched them pass for something like 300 yards last week. They've got good skill kids who can make plays in open space."
Tewksbury drew first blood in the game, taking the opening kick-off 64-yards on 11 plays for a touchdown. Bettano carried eight times for 47 yards on that first drive, and scored on a 10-yard run. Sophomore back Eddie Motovu ran a reverse on a fake extra point kick for the two-point conversion.
Haverhill came right back with a long drive of its own, pulling to within 8-6 when Brady scored on a one-yard plunge. Tewksbury then committed its first of two devastating turnovers, fumbling the ball back to the Hillies on the TMHS 40, just two plays after Haverhill had scored.
Morgan made Tewksbury pay for the fumble when he hit Connor Tufts with a five-yard touchdown pass to give his team a 12-8 halftime lead.
Tewksbury took the lead back in the third quarter when Aylward and Bettano led the Redmen on a nine-play, 76-yard scoring drive that gave Tewksbury a 14-12 lead. Bettano carried seven times for 67 yards on that drive, blasting up the middle for a 22-yard touchdown run to cap the drive.
Morgan and Brady answered with a quick strike of their own early in the fourth quarter. Brady scored from 26 yards out (on his only run of more than six yards on the night) to make it 20-14.
But Tewksbury responded with another long, run-only touchdown drive to tie the score at 20-20 with just 1:55 to play. Bettano carried 10 times for 56 yards on that drive, and scored his third touchdown of the night from two yards out to tie the score.
A botched squib kick on the ensuring kick-off gave Haverhill excellent field position on their own 46, and the Hillies drove 54 yards in just over 90 seconds for the winning touchdown. Morgan found Blaine Joia open on the goal line for a 17-yard scoring pass with 16 seconds left in the game to win it.
"We knew it was gonna be a mis-match (in the passing game) if we didn't get pressure on their quarterback," Aylward said. "And we didn't. It was frustrating. A frustrating game."
Ironically, the loss does not completely eliminate the Redmen from a possible playoff berth, but it does complicate matters quite a bit. Dracut knocked Lawrence out of the MVC title hunt last night, beating the Lancers in a low scoring 6-2 game. Tewksbury has seven points in the playoff standings, and Lawrence can now finish with no more than six.
But Dracut can now match Tewksbury's seven points if it beats Haverhill and Methuen in its final two games. And the Hillies climbed back into the race with their win over the Redmen last night. If Haverhill beats Dracut next Friday night and upsets Lowell on Thanksgiving Day, the Hillies would end the sesaon with seven points and a tie-breaker edge over Tewksbury.
The Redmen can actually still clinch the Division 2 championship by their own merits if they can upset MVC Division 1 front-runner Chelmsford on the Lions' home turf next Friday night.