It is a game that every high school football player remembers for years to come.
Thanksgiving Day, senior year.
Family and friends are nearby. The stands at Doucette Field are packed with fans. Arch-rival Wilmington is lined up across the field. The atmosphere is always electric.
But for the 20-or-so players who make up Tewksbury High's 2011 senior class, this year's Thanksgiving Day game will be even bigger than all that.
Not only will the Redmen enter the game as the Merrimack Valley Conference's Division 2 champions. Not only will they be playing to finish the season with a winning record. And not only will they be looking forward to at least one more game in the MIAA playoffs next week.
Almost bigger than all that is the fact that this senior class full of relatively unknown faces and unfamiliar names has come out of nowhere this year and exceeded all expectations. Representing the smallest school in the MVC, guys like Chris Bettano, Derek Tarpey, Kevin Saunders, Dan Altavesta and Ryan Eatherton have helped the team knock off MVC giants Andover, Lowell, Central Catholic and Dracut this fall, capturing the schools first league championship in 15 years.
A year ago this holiday weekend, well-known names like Anthony Arcari, Sean Connolly, Ryan Vibber, Dan Sugrue and Jerry Etienne were grabbing both the headlines and the attention of college scouts. In the absence of all that talent, a rebuilding year seemed inevitable in 2011, but just the opposite of that has happened.
After an 0-2 start, the team sprung a huge upset of Andover, and followed that with a convincing win over Central Catholic. Wins over Dracut and Lowell followed, and before the rest of the league knew what had hit them, the Redmen had clinched the MVC Division 2 title.
"It's been amazing," said Bettano, the senior running back who has amassed over 1250 rushing yards this season. "We graduated a lot of talented kids but we knew we had kids on the (junior varsity) team that could fill spots. We knew we had some talent, and we knew we could put it all together, but I didn't think it would turn out like this."
As Bettano had forecasted, this year's senior class stepped up big. Players like Altavesta, who spelled Bettano at running back and excelled at several defensive positions, became key contributors this fall. Linebackers Nick Winn, Mike Davidian and Chris London stepped up. Defensive backs Frankie McLaughlin and Brad Gahagan stepped up. Linemen like Evan Conway and Frankie McInnis and Brendan O'Keefe stepped up. Special teams guys like Scott Thurlow stepped up.
The turning point was clearly the Andover game. The Warriors were ranked among the top 10 teams in the state at that point, but the Redmen shocked them with a 38-28 upset at Doucette Field.
“We knew we had played pretty well in the second half against Lawrence,” recalled Saunders, the team's senior quarterback/defensive back. “So we carried a lot of momentum into that (Andover) game and just went full throttle. After that there was no stopping us. No looking back.”
Tewksbury rolled to convincing wins over Central Catholic and Dracut at home, and traveled to Lowell on Oct. 21 to pull off a 21-14 upset of the Red Raiders. That win ultimately stood up as the game that clinched the Division 2 title.
Staying focused on the task at hand was a key factor in stringing together all those big wins, according to Eatherton, who started at both offensive guard and defensive tackle this year.
“We just tried to focus on each game and what we needed to do to win,“ Eatherton said. “We didn't talk much about the big picture or whether or not this was going to be a rebuilding year. We thought more each week about working hard and doing what we had to do to win this game. Then, as we started to win games, it just turned out the way it did.”
So the Redmen will go into Thursday's big game with an opportunity to punctuate an already memorable season with another big win.
“That would be amazing,“ said senior linebacker Mike Davidian, whose older brother Joe captained Tewksbury's 2003 team. “I've been waiting for this game for 10 years, coming to all these games, watching my brother Joe play. It feels like I've been waiting for this game my whole life.”
“It would mean everything,” agreed Tarpey, who captained the team along with Bettano and Saunders this fall. “We'll worry about the playoff game when it comes time for that. We just want to come out flying tomorrow because we know they're going to come out hard after we beat them (26-21) last year.
“It's going to be a battle all day long,” Tarpey added. “Winning would be great. It's just such an emotional day and you just want to have fun and enjoy your Thanksgiving Day.”
“It would be huge,” agreed Saunders. “It's one last chance to play in front of your home crowd. I can't believe its almost over. But we're just going to try to make the most of our opportunities and leave it all on the field. We just have to execute everything. No Mistakes. Just play our guts out and play together as a team. No regrets. Just go all out.
"I've lost Thanksgiving games and I've won one," Saunders added. "Winning is definitely a lot more fun. The turkey tastes a lot better."