_Tewksbury High_ quarterback Kevin Saunders will be the first guy to tell you that his senior season has been one full of ups and downs.
The TMHS signal caller has been knocked out of two games with injuries this year, and has turned the ball over in critical situations in several games. But then again, Saunders has led the Redmen on a remarkable journey, too, piloting the team to historic wins over Andover, Central Catholic, Lowell and Dracut this fall.
But if Thanksgiving Day games are the ones you always remember, Saunders will have to look back on this year as a great one, as the Tewksbury captain came up with what was undoubtedly the best offensive performance of his career in leading the Redmen to a thrilling, 28-21 come-from-behind victory over Wilmington Thursday morning at Doucette Field.
Saunders rushed for a career-high 141 yards and two touchdowns, and then engineered the winning drive late in the fourth quarter, hitting senior wide receiver Frank McLaughlin with a 32-yard touchdown pass with just 1:31 left to play in the game. Saunders' heroics added yet another chapter to what has become a storybook season for the Merrimack Valley Conference Division 2 champion Redmen.
"It was unreal. It was one of those games you dream about," Saunders said afterward. "The whole time in the locker room before the game I was on the verge of tears. I couldn't talk to anybody because this was my last time coming onto this field. It was something special and I knew I had to perform."
Ironically, there was some doubt that Saunders would even be healthy enough to play in this game, as the QB suffered a mild concussion on Nov. 4 against Haverhill. Saunders missed the second half of that game and sat out the entire game against Chelmsford on Nov. 11, but with an extra five days to prepare for the Thanksgiving Day game, Saunders came back healthy.
That was clear from the get-go as Saunders wasted no time getting Tewksbury onto the scoreboard when he ran 40 yards for a touchdown just 1:05 into the first quarter. It came on Tewksbury's third play from scrimmage.
Wilmington, however, was in no mood to sit and watch _the Kevin Saunders show,_ and the Wildcats roared right back and took a 7-6 lead after senior running back John Parsons scored on an eight-yard run just over three minutes later.
Wilmington senior quarterback Matt Ferreira, who had an impressive final game in his own right, gave the Wildcats a 14-6 lead when he threw a 5-yard scoring pass to Parsons early in the second quarter.
But this was going to be Saunders' day no matter what, and he proved that four plays later when he burst through a huge hole and sprinted 56 yards for his second touchdown of the game, pulling TMHS to with 14-12 at the half.
After a scoreless third quarter, Tewksbury appeared to have taken control of the game when Saunders and _senior running back Chris Bettano _combined on an 8-play, 80-yard scoring drive. Saunders rushed for three first downs (two were third-down conversions) during that drive and Bettano electrified the home crowd with a 31-yard touchdown run, his 14th of the season. Bettano added the two-point conversion to put Tewksbury ahead, 20-14, with just 5:18 to play.
But again, Ferreira and the Wildcats had no intention of going away easily, as the Wilmington signal caller tossed a 50-yard touchdown bomb to senior tight end Kyle Albanese. With freshman James O'Regan's third point after kick of the game, Wilmington took a 21-20 lead with 4:01 to play.
That left things up to Saunders once again, and the Tewksbury QB responded, leading his team on a 56-yard scoring drive that stood up as the game winner. Saunders and Bettano (14 carries for 97 yards) each carried for critical third down conversions to keep the drive alive, setting up Saunders to call his own number on the game's biggest play.
Saunders' perfectly executed play fake on first-and-10 from the Wilmington 32 brought the Wilmington secondary in a step looking for the run, only to have the TMHS QB take a step back and toss a perfect spiral to McLaughlin, who was wide open on the five-yard line. McLaughlin pranced across the goal line with the game winning score, and bedlam broke loose on the Tewksbury sidelines.
"It's one of his favorite plays and he asked for it," said TMHS coach Brian Aylward of Saunders' game-winning score. "I wasn't going to call a passing play but I was gonna go with it if he felt confident with it, and that's what we did.
"He's been chomping at the bit to get back out there and make some plays," Aylward added. "And he had great vision in the run game today."
"He's a great player," agreed fellow co-captain Derek Tarpey. "He's constantly taking hits like you've never seen and he just keeps on going and leads the team to victory. He was fired up today."
Saunders wouldn't take all the credit by himself, however.
"It was unreal, but I gotta give credit to all the guys up front," he said. "Everybody was contributing. It wasn't just me. It was unbelievable. It was a great team effort."
Certainly, Tarpey deserves some of the credit, as the senior two-way player opened numerous holes for Saunders, Bettano and Dan Altavesta (38 rushing yards) on offense and participated in over a dozen tackles from his middle linebacker position on defense.
"We put so much on him (Tarpey) and he's been rock steady on both sides of the ball," Aylward said. "He's gonna go down as one of the great ones."
Senior lineman Ryan Eatherton also had a busy day on both sides of the ball, while Altavesta, Mike Davidian, Chris London, Nick Winn, Evan Conway, Brad Gahagan, Saunders and McLaughlin all made big defensive plays in the game.
The win puts Tewksbury (6-5 overall) back on the winning track just in time to begin preparations for next Tuesday's MIAA Division 2 playoff game with Reading High, at Reading. The Redmen were scheduled to watch film on Friday and practice on Saturday, Sunday and Monday before Tuesday night's post-season showdown.
But Aylward still found time to savor his team's big Thanksgiving Day win as he walked off the field on Thursday.
"It's almost un-American to put (the playoff game) before this game," Aylward said. "You only have one Thanksgiving Day game. If you have extra stuffing, that's great, and we'll be out there and we'll be ready and we're gonna try our best. But this is what it's all about and this is the one the kids really wanted, and they showed it.
"They fought back," Aylward added. "They had a sense of urgency when it started slipping away. That's how they play."