Tewksbury High football coach Brian Aylward would like to think that the Chelmsford High Lions might be looking forward to their Thanksgiving Day showdown with Billerica when the Redmen visit Simonian/Alumni Stadium on Friday night.
The annual Thanksgiving Day clash between Chelmsford and Billerica will likely decide the Merrimack Valley Conference Division 1 championship this year.
But if Aylward had any hopes of the Lions looking past his Redmen, all he has to do is remember back to last November's contest between these two teams, when Tewksbury shocked the MVC by upsetting Chelmsford, 28-7. That loss ultimately cost Chelmsford a chance to represent the MVC in the MIAA post-season playoffs in 2010.
"I had a chance to talk with (Chelmsford) coach (Bruce) Rich and a few of his kids over the summer, and I can tell you, they haven't forgotten that game," Aylward said. "They're going to be as focused for this game as they have been for any other game this season."
Through nine games, Chelmsford has been the class of the MVC, compiling an 8-1 record, with a perfect 6-0 mark in league play. The Lions are averaging 37.3 points per game, primarily relying on the running of senior back Eddie Sheridan, who leads the state in scoring with 128 points.
After winning their first four MVC games by more than 20 points each, Chelmsford has come back down to earth the last two weeks, topping Central Catholic, 33-17 on October 28 and holding off Lowell, 28-22 last Saturday night. Sheridan, however, has been unstoppable throughout the season, reaching the end zone at least twice in every game and piling up 21 touchdowns so far this season.
"He (Sheridan) is very good," Aylward said. "But they're also a very good unit. They're as solid a team from left to right as there is in the league. They've got an all-conference calibre kid at every spot. They're a bear to deal with."
Chelmsford is also coached by a guy who is regarded as something of a legend in Massachusetts coaching circles. In more than two decades as the school's football, wrestling and softball coach, Bruce Rich has accumulated as many victories as any coach in the state.
"I've got as much respect for Bruce as any coach in the area," Aylward said. "I've coached against him in two sports for 15 years and I know he's always prepared. He's always got top of the line talent, but it's what he does with them that makes him so successful. He knows how to put them in the best positions, and he's crafty. We know he's going to do some things (Friday) night that we haven't seen so far this year. It's just going to be up to our kids to make good decisions and adjust to those things."
Unfortunately, the Redmen will face Chelmsford without the services of senior quarterback Kevin Saunders, who is also one of the team's top defensive backs. Saunders suffered a concussion in the first half of last Friday night's 27-20 loss to Haverhill, and was replaced by both junior Zak DiRocco and sophomore Johnny Aylward at QB in that game.
The younger Aylward led the team on two long, second-half scoring drives last Friday, but the Redmen gave up a last-minute touchdown that cost them the game.
Both DiRocco and Aylward will play quarterback against Chelmsford, and coach Aylward promises a few new wrinkles when his team has the ball, too.
"I wouldn't be surprised if we had as many as four different kids taking snaps," Aylward said. "It's all stuff we've worked on before. We've had contingency plans in place all season long. We're not going to put the burden on any one kid."
The one thing you can count on is that Aylward will rely heavily on senior running back Chris Bettano, who has emerged as one of the top offensive players in the league this season. Bettano has rushed for over 1200 yards and 13 touchdowns so far this year. Last Friday he carried the ball 37 times for a career high 271 yards and three touchdowns against Haverhill.
In spite of last Friday's disappointing loss, the Redmen did clinch the MVC Division 2 championship last weekend when Dracut knocked off Lawrence. The news that the Redmen will be competing in post-season play for the first time in 15 years has led to a spirited week in practice, according to Aylward.
"I'm happy with the way they've approached things in practice this week," Aylward said. "We've got a lot of guys who are looking to go out there and make their mark and contribute this week."
Also worthy of note is the fact that the Redmen have played their best football this season against the top teams in the league. Tewksbury has an impressive 3-1 record against the other four MVC Division 1 teams, having beaten Andover, Central Catholic and Lowell in earlier games.
Still, Aylward realizes it will take his team's best effort of the season to pull off another huge Division 1 upset.
"We can't hope for anybody else to let down," Aylward said. "We have to be the best we can be. It's a tremendous opportunity to play against the only team in the league without a (MVC) loss. But we've got to play our best. There's no easing your way into a game against the top dog."