Editor's Note: The following story was written for Tewksbury Patch.
For the first time in 15 years, the will head into their annual Thanksgiving Day showdown with Wilmington knowing that this will not be their final game of the season.
TMHS, the 2011 Merrimack Valley Division 2 champion, will play Reading High next Tuesday in the first round of the MIAA Division 2 North playoffs, but don't worry about the Redmen looking ahead to Reading and coming out flat against Wilmington at Doucette Field on Thanksgiving morning.
That, according to Tewksbury High head coach Brian Aylward, just ain't gonna happen.
"We've talked about the fact that we've been invited to play some more football the week after Thanksgiving, but that doesn't change anything," Aylward said. "If anything, it puts more focus on this game. We've got a short time to shift gears and go through a whole new preparation period to get ready for Reading, and that's going to be a lot easier if we've got some momentum coming off this game."
The annual Turkey Day clash with Wilmington has as much history behind it as anything else any Tewksbury High athlete will ever participate in, and that concept has not been lost upon the Redmen in practice this week.
"This game carries with it so much emotion," Aylward said. "It's an emotionally charged game and the memories become all that much deeper, especially with all the lead-up to it. There's been a sense of urgency this week just getting ready. We just have to play with that sense of emergency from the first second of the game.
"We talk about playing a full 44 minutes every week, but a lot of times it boils down to one 5-6 second play that these guys will remember for the rest of their lives," Aylward added.
Last November, that one memorable play was senior running back Anthony Arcari's 82-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the third quarter of a 26-21 TMHS victory that pushed the Redmen over the .500 mark for the season (6-5) and set the stage for this year's remarkably successful campaign.
This year's game will be the 78th meeting between these two storied rivals. The series dates all the way back to 1935, and Tewksbury has a 43-26-8 record in the series. The Redmen have won three out of the last four games.
This year, Wilmington comes to Tewksbury representing the Middlesex League for the first time, having moved over from the Cape Ann League this fall. The Wildcats were Tewksbury's biggest MVC rival until they swtiched to the CAL 10 years ago, but when it comes to Tewksbury vs. Wilmington on Thanksgiving Day, league affiliations don't matter, according to Aylward.
"Leagues can change and situations become different over the years, but there's nobody who's ever played here (at TMHS) who doesn't remember Wilmington and how important that game is," Aylward said. "It's kind of got its own mystique about it. It's kind of like a rite of passage for anybody who's ever played here."
Beating Wilmington will be no easy task for the Redmen, as the visiting Wildcats have seen plenty of success in their inaugural season in the Middlesex League, running up a 6-3 record so far.
"They're big and strong," said Aylward of the Wildcats. "Not real tall, but all very solid kids. It's gonna be a battle up front."
Senior running back John Parsons, a 6-2, 190-pound bruiser, leads Wilmington in rushing and scoring with 17 touchdowns good for 102 points so far this year. Senior quarterback Matt Ferreira has thrown five touchdown passes as the Wildcats have averaged 22.7 points per game.
"Parsons is a big, strong, fast kid," Aylward said. "He been doing it for them for three years. He's had a great career. And their quarterback is a good player who's very efficient. He doesn't make many mistakes. He takes good care of the ball."
Tewksbury, however, has its own answers for Parsons and Ferreira, in senior running back Chris Bettano and senior quarterback Kevin Saunders. Bettano has rushed for over 1250 yards so far and scored 13 touchdowns, despite being kocked out the Nov. 11 game at Chelmsford with a back injury. Saunders missed the entire Chelmsford game with a concussion suffered against Haverhill, but the good news is that both Saunders and Bettano are healthy and will be suited up and ready to go on Thursday.
Aylward is also expecting a big game from senior captain Derek Tarpey, who has had an all-star season at both offensive guard and inside linebacker. Tarpey has dished out as many bruising hits on both sides of the ball as any player in recent memory, according to Aylward.
Tarpey, Saunders and Bettano are eagerly anticipating their final home game, according to Aylward.
"They wouldn't miss it for the world," Aylward said. "For any kid who's followed Tewksbury football this is the ultimate game. This is the game you look forward to your whole career. This is your last chance to go out and put it all together."
Game time is 10:00 a.m. Thursday morning at Doucette Field.