On paper, Saturday afternoon's Merrimack Valley Conference match-up between Dracut and Tewksbury has the potential to become another monumental win for the Redmen.
This game features two teams heading in opposite directions, as the once and mighty Middies have lost three straight games by convincing margins, while TMHS has played three of the most successful teams in the MVC over the past three weeks, and come out on top in two of those games.
Tewksbury is coming off an impressive showing in a 20-14 loss to powerful Billerica High School last Friday night, and to be fair, if not for a handful of costly turnovers and ill-timed penalties, the 2011 edition of the TMHS Redmen could be carrying a 4-1 record into this game.
But even at 2-3 overall (2-2 MVC), Tewksbury enters an important stretch of its MVC schedule with ample opportunity to contend for the MVC Division 2 championship. All five of the MVC Division 2 teams currently sit at 2-3 on the season.
"It's another huge opportunity for us to go out there and put it all together," said TMHS coach Brian Aylward. "And that's what we want to do. We need to execute and be tough, and out work them."
Dracut is led by a senior quarterback who, for the first time in five years, is not listed among the top college prospects in the MVC. Senior signal caller Jimmy Ryan has huge shoes to fill, following in the footsteps of graduated superstars Matt Grimard (2009) and Matt Silva (2011).
While Ryan has not put up the gaudy numbers that Grimard and Silva did, he has thrown seven touchdown passes in his first five games.
"They put a lot of pressure on (Ryan) to do all the things that a Silva or a Grimard would do," Aylward said. "It's a little different this year because the kid is taking his first crack at it, but he's certainly good enough to beat anybody in the league. He can throw the ball, he can run it, and he's tough. When he gets in that real good decision making mode he's as good as any of them."
Ryan and the Middies started the season off in impressive fashion with a 13-7 win over St. John's Prep and followed that up with a 31-0 whitewashing of Somerville. But over the past three weeks, the Dracut defense has allowed an average of 32 points per game while losing three straight, including back-to-back losses to Billerica (40-14) and Lowell (35-20) by double digit margins.
The 2-3 Middies, who have won three straight MVC championships prior to this year, will bring a losing record into Doucette Stadium for the first time in recent memory.
"At times this season they've looked as good, if not better than some of the great Dracut teams from the last couple years." Aylward said. "But at other times they've made some mistakes and some turnovers that have hurt them."
Tewksbury, meanwhile, has relied heavily on the spectacular play-making of senior running back Chris Bettano, who has carried 74 times for 616 yards in six games so far. Bettano is averaging 8.3 yards per carry and 123.2 yards per game so far, and has scored four touchdowns and a pair of two-point conversions.
"They (Dracut) are going to be expecting more of the same thing out of us," Aylward said. "That's why we need to execute and limit our mistakes."
Unfortunately for Bettano, one of his favorite teammates to run behind, senior offensive guard Ryan Eatherton, will miss the game with a concussion. Brendan O'Keefe will move from center to guard and Christian Taylor will take over at center. And Bettano will still have a one man gang by the name of Derek Tarpey to follow up the field.
Tarpey has arguably been the team's most valuable player so far this fall, opening huge holes for the running game playing offensive guard, and wreaking havoc on opposing offenses from his middle linebacker position on defense. Tarpey already has two interceptions on the season, along with several sacks and countless bruising tackles.
"He's been a force," said Aylward of Tarpey. "And he's such a quiet, humble kid off the field. But there's nothing quiet about him when he gets on the field."
There is good news on the injury front, however, as senior quarterback Kevin Saunders is nearly 100 percent healthy and ready to play. Saunders suffered a hip injury in the Billerica game and sat out most of the second half.
The importance of this game is not lost on Saunders, Bettano and Tarpey. All three senior tri-captains are well aware that TMHS has not beaten Dracut since 2007.
"We know how important it is, and it's pretty simple," Tarpey said. "We have to come out flying in the league games."
Payback is on the minds of the Tewksbury players, according to Tarpey.
"I know people have looked at us as underdogs in every game so far, and that kind of gets us going a little bit," Tarpey said. "We come out flying and we're trying to make a name for ourselves and prove we're a good team."
In spite of the Middies' record, though, Tarpey and the Redmen realize Dracut will be anything but a pushover.
"We do understand that they're a good team," Tarpey said. "They may not be what they used to be, but they're still good. So we've got to give it our all. If we play like we have been and cut down on the mistakes, we can pull it out."