For the Tewksbury High football team, this is unfamiliar territory.
Rarified air, if you will.
Coach Brian Aylward's TMHS Redmen will travel to Haverhill Friday night and compete for an opportunity to participate in post-season play for the first time in 15 years.
The Redmen, currently 5-3 overall and 5-2 in the Merrimack Valley Conference, sit atop the MVC Division 2 standings with their destiny seated firmly in the their own hands.
In the MVC's convoluted scoring system, Tewksbury has seven points and can finish with as many as 10. Second place Lawrence has just four points, and can finish with as many as eight. Translated into English, that means that if TMHS can beat Haverhill on Friday night and earn the two points that go with it, the Redmen will have clinched the Division 2 championship and earned a spot in the MIAA Division 2 playoffs come early December.
"We have a huge task in front of us but a huge opportunity as well," said Aylward. "We have the potential to play more games than anybody in recent history here, but it's all about this week right now."
Tewksbury last won an MVC Championship in 1996, and has actually never won an MVC Division 2 championship since the conference was only split into two divisions two years ago, and Dracut won the first two Division 2 titles. But this fall, the Redmen have shocked the league by knocking off Andover, Central Catholic, Dracut and Lowell in a 30-day period, overcoming an early-season loss to Lawrence and catapulting themselves into first place in the Division 2 standings.
Locking up the Division 2 title and the playoff berth that goes with it won't be easy however, as Haverhill has come on strong enough to turn more than a few heads in the last three weeks. The Hillies earned their first MVC victory since 2007 three weeks ago when they whitewashed Methuen, 13-0, then went on to throw a huge scare into Billerica in a 28-20 overtime loss two weeks ago.
Last Friday night, Haverhill jumped out to a 26-6 first half lead over Lawrence only to see the Lancers rally back for at 33-32 victory. Haverhill stands at 3-5 overall, 1-3 in the MVC, and can finish with no more than seven points in the MVC Division 2 standings, but that doesn't mean the Hillies aren't looking for another upset win on Friday.
"They've got a lot of senior kids that have played tough the last couple years," Aylward said of Haverhill. "They're starting to realize that they can play with anybody in this league. Our guys are not gonna be surprised by them and we're certainly not taking them lightly. Our guys know
this is a huge game for us. The way they (Haverhill) have played the last few weeks, this is as good a team as we've faced. We've got our work cut out for us."
In order to beat Haverhill the Redmen are going to have to find a way to stop one of the top ball carriers in the MVC, junior running back Chance Brady. A 5-9 205-pounder, Brady has scored 15 touchdowns and 94 total points so far, tops among Division 2 running backs. Last Friday night Brady, who averages over 30 carries per game, ran for 120 yards and two TDs against Lawrence. The week before that he gained 196 yards on the ground against Billerica.
"He's one of the top backs in the league, he's outstanding," said Aylward of Brady. "And they've go another kid (Blaine Joia) who's the top kick returner in the league. He had an ESPN highlight 100-yard interception return against Lawrence."
The Redmen will rely on their own workhorse at running back, 5-9 senior Chris Bettano. Against Methuen last week, Bettano carried 32 times for 169 yards and two touchdowns. Bettano also rushed for the game-winning two-point conversion in overtime, as the Redmen held off Methuen's second-half upset bid and pulled out a thrilling, 26-24 victory that kept them in first place.
It was the ultimate gut-check for this year's Redmen, as sloppy field conditions limited much of what they could do, and played right into the hands of Methuen's talented quarterback, Eric Lacroix.
"I think the field conditions took away a lot of things we wanted to do, and I think they (Methuen) did a great job taking advantage of the conditions," Aylward said. "But our kids were able to refocus at the end of the game and get it done.
"That's as good a piece of work in that regard as I can remember," Aylward added. "They found a way and got it done."
Aylward will be asking his Redmen for more of the same Friday night.
"We try not to look too far ahead, but we talked about earning the opportunity we've got this week," Aylward said. "We've earned our way into this opportunity, but whether we take advantage of it or not is up to us. We've got to be firing on all cylinders. We've got to go out play our best game of the year."
Game time is 7:00 p.m. Friday at Haverhill Stadium, recently renamed Trinity Stadium.