Saturday, October 22, 2016

Tewksbury Tops Billerica for MVC Crown & Top Seed

By Nate Weitzer (@nweitzer7)

TEWKSBURY, Mass. – The Billerica Indians and Tewksbury Redmen came into Saturday’s winner-take-all battle for the Merrimack Valley Conference title with identical 6-0 records, but each program took a different route to get to that point.

Billerica came into the 2016 season with 17 returning seniors and lofty expectations that were inflated by wins over Division 1 powers Andover and Everett, while the Redmen were somewhat overlooked to begin the year because of all the important players they graduated.

However, on a rain-soaked field at Tewksbury’s John F. Daly Elementary School this Saturday, the less experienced and smaller Redmen made more big plays and dominated the second half, en route to a 20-7 victory and league title.

“The last few years we’ve had some special teams and we lost some key players, so when the experts look at it there were some question marks coming into this year,” began Tewksbury head coach Brian Aylward, “But these guys believed that if they worked hard enough, good things would come from it, and they stuck to it all offseason and put up a big effort today.”

Tewksbury (7-0) fell behind early when Billerica (6-1) quarterback Zach Burns hooked up with his favorite target, Dean Brooks, for a 47-yard touchdown to open the scoring right before the break.

But it didn’t take long for the hosts to respond, as sophomore quarterback Jay Connolly found wide receiver Aaron Whitehouse (3 receptions, 68 yards, 2 Total TDs) wide open for a 48-yard score to keep the Redmen in the game. 

The Redmen opened the second half with an impressive eight-minute drive that stalled deep in Indians territory, but when their defense forced a punt, Whitehouse made a game-changing play.

Catching the ball was a tenuous excursion given the footing on the muddy field, but once the 5-foot-7 Whitehouse secured the pigskin at his own 40-yard line, he found a way to elude all eleven Billerica defenders on his way to a 60-yard touchdown, putting his squad up 14-7. 

“A kid [Whitehouse] that big doesn’t get a shot in a lot of places,” admitted Aylward. “But we’ve always had little guys like that and asked them to do big things. He works so hard for us and he gets every bit of what God gave him out of himself.”

That play served to swing the momentum, but Tewksbury’s defense still had to come up with a few key stops to keep Billerica from responding in kind.

Well, to be exact, the special teams unit also came up big, as senior Steven Catanzano recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff and linebacker Blake Hiltz (two sacks, forced fumble, fumble recovery) stripped Billerica’s return man and recovered the ball on another kick return later in the second half.

After junior Will Matovu picked off Burns midway through the fourth quarter, workhorse running back Brandon Winn (28 carries, 107 yards) broke a 40-yard run on a well-designed counter sweep to put the Redmen in position for a huge score.

Connolly finished the drive with a sneak from the one-yard line to make it 20-7 and seal not only a conference championship, but likely secure the No. 1 seed for Tewksbury in the North bracket of the upcoming Division 2 MIAA State Tournament.

“No matter what happened today, we knew that we’d have to play really well against two really good teams to get an opportunity to likely play [Billerica] again [in the D2 North Final],” Aylward maintained, “But this win does allow us to play on our field and gives us the league championship, which is a huge feather in these kids’ cap.”

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