The toughest pill for the Tewksbury High Redmen to swallow when they look back on Friday night's 20-14 loss to Billerica will be the fact that this was a game they very much could have won.
A slew of penalties, a couple of dropped passes and three turnovers derailed what should have been a good enough effort to give Tewksbury its third straight Merrimack Valley Conference upset victory.
"It's pretty frustrating," said TMHS head coach Brian Aylward afterward. "We're not good enough to come in here and not execute and we're certainly not good enough to come in here and hand over anything in terms of penalties and turnovers and that kind of stuff like we did tonight."
Two interceptions, a fumbled punt and 67 yards in untimely penalties gave Billerica's high-powered offense enough extra chances overcome the fact that the Redmen outgained the Indians in total yards by a margin of 284-249.
With all those extra chances, Billerica's superstar tandem of quarterback Nick LaSpada and wide receiver/kick returner Matt Clifford made just enough big plays to avoid becoming the third straight MVC Goliath to fall victim to Tewksbury's three-week run as David.
"We knew, we knew, we saw them twice and we knew their kids are so tough," said Billerica coach Peter Flynn of the Redmen. "Thankfully our kids were resilient, they bounced back, they were poised. I'm proud of them."
LaSpada completed 9-of-18 passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns, but it was Clifford, the lightning fast junior wide receiver, who did the most damage. Clifford broke Tewksbury's back by scoring all three of Billerica's touchdowns, two on long pass receptions (73 and 44 yards) and another on an 85-yard kick-off return.
Clifford, who has scored nine touchdowns in five games this year, seemed to have an immediate answer every time the Redmen looked as though they had taken control of the game. Tewksbury drew first blood on an 18-yard trick play early in the second quarter, as senior wide receiver Frank McLaughlin started out running a reverse, but pulled up and threw a perfect pass to quarterback Kevin Saunders in the Billerica end zone.
But three plays later, LaSpada threw a bomb to a wide open Clifford, who flew 73 yards for a touchdown to tie the score.
LaSpada and Clifford hooked up again on a 44-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter but Tewksbury bounced right back to tie the game at 14-apiece when freshman running back James Sullivan rumbled 19 yards for a touchdown.
Again, Clifford had an answer, taking the ensuing kick-off 85-yards for a spirit-breaking towchdown that eventually stood up as the game winner.
"God Bless Matt Clifford," Flynn said. "He's a difference maker. He's a play maker. He's insatiable. He loves the game of football. He can't get enough of it."
The Redmen had a few playmakers of thier own, however, not the least of whom was senior running back Chris Bettano, who carried the ball 16 times for 155 yards, his third straight 100-plus yard game. Tewksbury gained 202 yards on the ground to Billerica's 59.
Unfortunately, the Redmen had to play most of the second half without Saunders at quarterback, as the senior signal caller suffered a hip injury playing defense in the third quarter. Zak DiRocco, a junior, and Johnny Aylward, a sophomore, alternated snaps for most of the final two quarters, with both players having a hand in the third-quarter scoring drive that tied the game at 14-14.
Five different TMHS players ended up throwing passes in the game, with senior running back Dan Altavesta finishing as Tewksbury's top passer, completing a 58-yard halfback pass to Sullivan in the second quarter. DiRocco, Aylward, McLaughlin and Saunders also threw passes as the Redmen finished a collective 3-for-12 for 84 yards and two interceptions and a touchdown.
Both team's defenses took control in the fourth quarter, as neither team could muster a first down in the final 11 minutes, and Billerica hung on for the narrow victory.
Losing Saunders to injury and relying on two inexperienced quarterbacks limited what the Redmen could do offensively, Aylward said.
"That's a tough spot for any kid to go in if he's not taking the regular reps in practice," Aylward said. "I thought they did a good enough job to give us a chance to win, but we spuutered with penalties. I dont think there were many breakdowns, it was the penalties."
Defensively, senior middle linebacker Derek Tarpey had another standout night for Tewksbury, intercepting a LaSpada pass, sacking LaSpada twice and making numerous tackles that stymied the Billerica running game. Defensive lineman Ryan Eatherton, linebackers Eddie Matovu and Chris London and defensive back Brad Gahagan all had big hits in the game.
Tewksbury, now 2-3 overall and 2-2 in the MVC, faces Dracut High next weekend.