Three short months ago, it would have been difficult to find anyone who thought the Tewksbury High football team was going anywhere this season.
On Saturday, the Redmen are going to Gillette Stadium to play in the MIAA Division 2 Super Bowl against unbeaten Duxbury (12-0). Game time is 3:30 p.m.
Led by stellar efforts from their three senior tri-captains -- quarterback Kevin Saunders, running back Chris Bettano and linebacker Derek Tarpey -- coach Brian Aylward's Tewksbury High Redmen once again played the role of giant killers Tuesday night, storming into Reading to steam-roll the heavily favored Rockets, 21-6 in an Eastern Mass Divison 2 playoff game.
Bettano carried 21 times for 75 yards and a touchdown, and also caught an 11-yard touchdown pass. Saunders completed 5-of-8 passes for 65 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 49 more yards. And Tarpey had yet another monster game on both sides of the ball, opening holes for the ball carriers and coming up with a game-clinching interception on defense, as the Redmen shocked the Eastern Mass football world by thoroughly dominating a team no one thought they could beat.
"It feels good," said TMHS head coach Brian Aylward. "It feels good when people doubt you and you prove them wrong. I think any human being likes that. Our kids are no different and our coaches are the same. We show up and fight every chance we get."
Ultimately, it was the Tewksbury defense that made the big difference in this game. Reading came into the contest averaging 27.2 points per game. The Rockets had scored no fewer than 28 points in their last three games, and had topped 30 points six times this season.
But Tarpey, Dan Altavesta, Ryan Eatherton, Saunders, Evan Conway, Chris London, Mike Davidian, Frank McLaughlin, Nick Wynn and Brad Gahagan all came up with big defensive plays, limiting the high-powered Reading offense to just 44 rushing yards and only six first downs, two in the second half. The Redmen prevented Reading, which had scored over 40 rushing touchdowns in its 11 regular season games, from scoring a rushing touchdown for the first time this season.
"Give the kids credit," said Aylward of his team's defensive effort. "Give the coaches credit too. We worked real hard on making the right adjustments and I think we got a pretty good feel for a couple of things they were trying to do, but the bottom line is our kids got off the blocks and they made some sticks and they did a real good job."
"No matter what, it was gonna be a team effort," agreed Conway, the standout senior two-way lineman. "We weren't gonna give them an inch. Everybody showed up to play today and things just worked out for us."
"We were clicking on all cylinders," agreed Saunders. "It was great."
Reading drew first blood in this contest after a scoreless first quarter in which neither team saw the red zone. But the Rockets' super sophomore quarterback Drew Belcher found senior wide receiver Ryan Maney wide open behind the TMHS secondary with just under 3:00 to play in the first half, and the pair hooked up on a 70-yard scoring bomb.
Tewksbury responded immediately, however, taking the ensuing drive 63 yards on six plays to tie the score at 6-6. Saunders capped that drive by finding Bettano open on the goal line on an 11-yard touchdown pass that came with just 38 seconds to play in the half.
The Redmen had totaled just 97 yards of offense in the first half, but that all changed in the final two quarters as TMHS came out and seized the lead for good on its first possession of the third quarter. Saunders and Bettano took turns banging out first downs as Tewksbury marched 67 yards on 10 plays, with Bettano carrying the ball over the goal line from nine yards out.
Saunders, who had earlier connected with senior wide out Frank McLaughlin on a 16-yard pass on fourth-and 13 to keep the drive alive, scrambled magnificently for the two-point conversion to make it 14-6.
The Tewksbury defense would only allow Reading two first downs after that, and the TMHS offense churned up eight huge minutes of playing time in the fourth quarter with a season-high, 17-play drive during which Saunders converted three critical third-down situations into first downs.
"He's a great kid," Aylward said of Saunders. "He just spills his guts for his town and I'm happy to go into battle with a kid like that any day of the week."
That lengthy drive ended when Tewksbury fumbled through the Reading end zone and the Rockets took over with a touchback, but it only took Tarpey and Saunders one play to get the ball back.
On first down from his own 20, Belcher threw over the middle only to have Saunders tip the pass into Tarpey's arms. Two plays after Tarpey returned the interception to the Reading 10-yard line, Altavesta sealed the Tewksbury win on a three-yard touchdown run. Matt Blaisdell's extra point made it 21-6 with 2:29 to play, and the Rockets never threatened after that.
"We just stayed focused and came out flying," said Tarpey of his team's second half dominance. "Most of our games have been won in the second half, so we just came out flying around and made it happen."
"We could smell Gillettte," Saunders added with a smile.
And on Saturday, the Redmen will get to see, taste and feel Gillette Stadium. Tewksbury goes to Foxboro to play Duxbury High in the Division 2 Super Bowl this Saturday afternoon at 3:30 p.m.
"It's awesome," Tarpey said. "People doubted us from the start. People thought this was going to be a rebuilding season. But we came out and made it happen. We're going to a Super Bowl. It's awesome."