The Tewksbury High football team has relished the role of the underdog all season long, and things will be no different for the Redmen this Saturday afternoon at Gillette Stadium when TMHS clashes with undefeated Duxbury in the Eastern Mass. Division 2 Super Bowl (3:30 p.m.).
Simply put, the Green Dragons are the class of the division in this state, having won 26 straight games, not the least of which was a 35-13, 2010 Division 2A Super Bowl victory over Concord-Carlisle last December.
Duxbury has rolled to a 12-0 record so far this season, running the table in the Patriot League Keenan Division, while scoring an average of 32.4 points per game and allowing a measley 6.8 points against. Prior to Tuesday night's 7-0 playoff win over King Phillip, the Green Dragons had scored no fewer than 21 points in any game this season, and had cracked the 30-point barrier nine times.
"They're something else," said Tewksbury coach Brian Aylward of Duxbury. "They've got a ton of talent and most of it has to do with the quarterback. He's a great player and a great athlete."
The quarterback is 6-4, 215-pound senior Matt O'Keefe, a legitimate Division 1 college prospect who led all of Division 2 throwing 32 touchdown passes this fall.
"These guys just come out throwing," Aylward said. "And once you start peeling guys back out of the box, they hit you with the run. They've got two good explosive backs, too."
Of course, the Redmen have been up against top notch talent before, holding star players like Lowell's RJ Noel, Andover's Andrew Coke and Billerica's Nick LaSpada in check earlier this season. On Tuesday night, the Redmen came up with what was perhaps their best effort and biggest upset of the season, totally dominating a high-powered Reading High offense in a 21-6 playoff victory on the Rockets' home turf.
That victory was the latest chapter in a storybook season for the Redmen, who have made a habit of upsetting highly-favored opponents this fall. Football players from Andover High, Central Cathloic, Lowell High, Dracut and Reading can all tell you that this Tewksbury High football team is not to be taken lightly.
"I think it just boils down to the character of these kids," Aylward offered. "These kids have great character. No one's gonna bully them. They won't be bullied and they won't be intimidated."
The Redmen have been led by a trio of senior captains this season in linebacker/offensive guard Derek Tarpey, running back Chris Bettano and quarterback Kevin Saunders. Tarpey has arguably been the team's most valuable player, opening huge holes for the running backs on offense, and dishing out dozens of punishing tackles while creating numerous turnovers on defense.
Bettano has rushed for 15 touchdowns and over 1,500 yards, when you include his playoff statistics. He has also caught two touchdown passes and scored three two-point conversions, running for a score and catching a touchdown pass against Reading on Tuesday.
Saunders has fought through two different injuries and emerged over the past two games as just as great a scoring threat as Bettano. Saunders rushed for two touchdowns and threw for another in a 28-21 Thanksgiving Day win over Wilmington, and on Tuesday night he completed 5-of-8 passes for 65 yards and a touchdown and converted several critical third- or fourth-and-long situations that kept scoring drives alive.
"That was a great game," allowed Aylward of the monumental win in Reading. "To go into their home stadium and play that well against a team like that -- all of those things you can say were obstacles, but at the same time it makes the win that much more special and that much more memorable. I'm very proud of what our kids did."
Of course, repeating that performance won't be easy. Duxbury has allowed an average of just one touchdown per game this year, and has pitched five shut outs in 2011.
"They're very athletic all the way across (their defense)," Aylward said. "All 11 kids can run. They just fly at you. They're very aggressive and they get a lot of penetration.
"Everybody wants to talk about their offense all the time, but their defense is just as good."
Duxbury will also have the advantage of having played on this big stage last December, while the Redmen are playing in their first Super Bowl since 1996.
For Tewksbury, it will be the program's sixth Super Bowl appearance overall, haivng won two previous championships, in 1985 and 1996. The Redmen lost in their first Super Bowl appearance, 14-7 to Winthrop in 1981. In 1985, with coach Aylward in the line-up, Tewksbury beat Bridgewater-Raynham, 24-13.
The Redmen appeared in three Super Bowls in the 1990s, losing to Peabody, 14-7 in 1990 and dropping a 22-14 decision to Walpole in 1995. In 1996, the Redmen came back and avenged the '95 loss, edging Walpole 20-19.
All of those appearances came well before the MIAA expanded the playoff system three years ago, so each of the previous Tewksbury teams went to the Super Bowl sporting near-flawless records. The fact that this year's team has punched its ticket to Foxboro with a 7-5 overall record makes this fairy tale story all the more special to Aylward.
"They've been fun to coach because they over-achieve in a lot of people's eyes," Aylward said. "These kids don't want to listen to what anybody has to say. Whoever wants to doubt them, that's fine with them.
"We believe, and that's the big thing," Aylward added. "Now we've just got to go slay the dragons."