It's a new experience and a whole new feeling for the
The TMHS football team will be playing in an MIAA post-season game for the first time in 15 years when the Redmen travel to Reading tomorrow night to face Reading High in a MIAA Division 2 Eastern Mass playoff game.
The winner of the game will go on to represent Eastern Mass in the Division 2 Super Bowl Dec. 3 at Gillette Stadium.
"It's a little bit different than what we're used to at this time of year," said "The kids are chomping at the bit and ready to go. It's a new experience but the kids are fired up to go out and play."
Reading High, which was chosen to host this playoff game long before its football team qualified for post-season play, will enjoy the rare advantage of playing a home game in the playoffs. Reading High's stadium was one of eight sites chosen to host a playoff doubleheader this year. There will be a 5:15 p.m. Division 5 playoff game (Chelsea vs. Cathedral) preceding the Tewksbury/Reading game, which kicks off at 7:30.
Aylward, however, refuses to spend a lot of time worrying about whether or not playing on their home field gives the Rockets and unfair edge.
"We'll leave that discussion up to other people," Aylward said. "We're not going to worry about it. We'll play 'em in a parking lot if we have to. Those are minor things. Whether it gives them an advantage or not, who knows? We try to sell it the other way. There's more pressure on them because they're at home."
Tewksbury is actually the home team in the MIAA pairings, and as such, the Redmen will be wearing their all red uniforms. Those are the same uniforms Tewksbury wore in huge wins over Andover, Central Catholic, Dracut, Methuen and most recently Wilmington on Thanksgiving Day.
"We're wearing red, and that's what we wanted," Aylward said. "We're pretty excited about that."
The Redmen enter the game on an emotional high after knocking off Thanksgiving Day rival Wilmington, 28-21, last Thursday on a last minute touchdown pass from senior quarterback Kevin Saunders to senior wide receiver Frank McLaughlin. Saunders had the best game of his career in that game, rushing for over 100 yards and two touchdowns in addition to throwing the game-winning TD pass.
Tewksbury's ground game is led by senior running back Chris Bettano, who has assembled one of the top seasons in Tewksbury High history this fall, rushing for more than 1400 yards and 14 touchdowns in the rough-and-tumble Merrimack Valley Conference.
Reading is led by super-sophomore quarterback Drew Belcher, who has thrown 13 touchdown passes and rushed for 13 touchdowns in leading the Rockets to an 8-3 regular season record. Reading went 5-0 in Middlesex League Division 1 action and captured the league championship.
Reading features a multi-faceted offense as Belcher has thrown touchdown passes to five different receivers. Senior running back Anthony Desimone has eight rushing touchdowns and sophomore flanker Liam Kenneally has scored seven touchdowns.
"The quarterback is a big kid with a strong arm and he runs good," Aylward said. "And they have three halfbacks who are all cut out of the same mold. They're big strong kids who can go the distance from anywhere. They present a problem trying to defend against any one thing."
This will be the fourth consecutive playoff appearance for the Rockets. Reading won the 2009 Division 2 Super Bowl, 26-0 over Natick after beating Dracut at home in the playoffs, 20-6. Last season, Reading also beat Dracut, 15-14, in a playoff home game, but went on to lose the Super Bowl, 29-26 to Mansfield. In 2008, Marshfield knocked off the Rockets, 20-12, in a playoff game in Reading.
But while Tewksbury (6-5 overall, 5-4 in the MVC), which last qualified for post-season play in 1996, would seem to be the underdog, the Redmen have relished that role this year. Tewksbury has engineered upsets of MVC Division 1 powers Lowell, Central Catholic and Andover this year, and also knocked off defending Division 2 champ Dracut.
"Our kids have been very resilient this year," Aylward said. "And it's an honor and a privilege to represent our league in the playoffs, but at the same time we don't want to be one of those teams that's just going to be happy to be there.
"We're going to show up to play and we're going to go for it," Aylward added. "We're not going over there to try to play respectable. We're going over there to win."
Aylward hopes that the emotional high the team is on after pulling out the thrilling, last-minute Thanksgiving Day win over Wilmington will carry right into the playoff game.
"It was a tremendous win for these guys and they're running on a lot of adrenalin right now," Aylward said. "But we've talked about these things all year long. It's a feather in their cap that nobody can take away, but we've got to just leave it there right now because it will always be there. Now we're presented with another big challenge and if we can do it again, it's gonna be another huge feather in our cap."
Tewksbury and Reading have one common opponent this fall. The Rockets lost to Lawrence High, 32-13, in their season opener on Sept. 9. A week later, Lawrence held off Tewksbury, 22-15.
Tickets for the game cost $10 for adults and $7 for students. They are available at the Tewksbury High athletic office on Tuesday or they can be purchased at the gate.