In spite of the fact that they'll be playing in the cozy confines of Doucette Field, coach Brian Aylward and his Tewksbury High football team will step into unfamiliar territory on Saturday afternoon.
For the first time this year, the Redmen will be the odds-on favorite to win this weekend's game.
Methuen High, winless in its last five games, limps into town with a 2-5 overall record, having allowed its last five opponents an average of 37.0 points per game.
Tewksbury, on the other hand, has written the feel-good story of the year in the Merrimack Valley Conference, pulling off upset after upset in the past 30 days, and rolling to the the top of the MVC Division 2 standings with a 4-2 league record.
On paper, it's a classic trap game. The over-achieving Redmen have won four of their last five games and shocked everyone in the MVC in the process. Andover High, Central Catholic, Dracut and Lowell have all fallen victim to TMHS in this magical stretch of unlikely victories, but ironically, Aylward is no more worried about a letdown this weekend than he has been in any other game this season.
"The thing is, our guys are grounded, they're humble," Ayward said. "They know where they came from. Our veteran guys have been through a tough grind in the middle of the season just like Methuen is going through right now. We were there last year (losing five straight at mid-season). We know what it's like and that's what drives them in practice.
"Of course you worry about it," Aylward added. "I worry all the time, but in terms of a letdown, I don't think these kids, at this point, going through what they've gone through, I don't think they'll take anybody lightly."
After all, it is the MVC, and in spite of this year's losing record, the Methuen High program has enjoyed as much success as any other MVC team in recent years. Behind former all-star quarterback Cal Carroll, Methuen went 8-0 in its first eight MVC games last fall, and entered the Thanksgiving Day game with a chance to run the table in the MVC and represent the league in the MIAA playoffs. Quarterback Matt Silva and the Dracut High Middies ruined those plans with a 19-12 Turkey Day win, but the Rangers return a slew of veteran players who've tasted victory many times before.
Quarterback Eric Lacroix is as much a threat to beat you with his feet as he is with his arm, and running back Ryan Savastano has been the mainstay in the Ranger backfield for two years.
"They got some good size up front and the quarterback is a real good player," Aylward said. "Savastano had a great year last year at running back. We've seen them twice in person and they're good up front and they're a tough group of kids."
Unfortunately for the Rangers, there are at least five MVC teams who would say the same thing about Tewksbury's team. The Redmen have been visibly smaller than almost every other team they've faced this year, but the vast majority of the bone-crushing hits have been dished out by the TMHS defense. Senior middle linebacker/offensive guard Derek Tarpey is undersized at 5-11, 185-pounds, but he has been a one-man gang for the Redmen, sacking quarterbacks, dropping opposing running backs for losses and creating turnovers almost every week.
Offensively, Tarpey has dished out more pancakes than a weekend waitress at IHOP, and senior running back Chris Bettano has been the biggest benefactor of Tarpey's punishing blocking runs.
Bettano leads the team with 809 rushing yards and eight touchdown runs in just seven games so far this year. He needs just 191 rushing yards in his final four games to crack the 1,000-yard barrier.
"He's been so focused this season," Aylward said of Bettano. "The best running backs can tell you the blocking scheme on any play. They know where that extra blocker is, and they take advantage of it.
"If you took all the running backs in the league and lined them up on the field and had a race, there's no way he (Bettano) would finish first," Aylward said. "But he knows where to run, and he knows when to run fast."
Senior running back Dan Altavesta has been just as big a threat to break a long run as Bettano has, and senior quarterback Kevin Saunders has made big plays with his feet and his arm this season.
"Danny Altavesta has been as cool as a cucumber when gets the ball," Aylward says. "He's made great decisions. He's thrown something like seven (option) passes but he's had the option to throw the ball at least a dozen times. He's just a savvy kid.
"And Saunders has been so much better with his decision making," Aylward said. "It comes more from a confidence that we have the people out there who can make the plays when we need them to."
A victory on Saturday would give the Redmen two important points in the MVC Division 2 title race. At present, Tewksbury leads the Division with a 4-2 league record, 1-1 in Division 2 play. But Haverhill and Lawrence, who play each other Friday night, both are in position to challenge the Redmen for first place and the MIAA playoff berth that comes with it.
That's why the TMHS has to take care of business once again on Saturday afternoon.
"If you think Methuen is looking at our record and thinking they can't beat us, you're wrong," Aylward said. "They're going to be looking across the line and seeing 5-10, 180-pound (Tewksbury) linemen and licking their chops. We're gonna neeed every bit of the nastiness, every bit of the hustle. We're gonna have to out-work, out-hustle and out-execute them."
Game time is 1:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon at Doucette Field.