Tewksbury senior quarterback Kevin Saunders picked the perfect day to come up with the best performance of his career, rushing for two touchdowns and throwing for a third as the Redmen came from behind to beat Wilmington, 28-21 in a Thanksgiving Day thriller at Doucette Field Thursday morning.
Saunders scored on runs of 56 and 40 yards, then found senior wide receiver Frankie McLaughlin wide open near the goal line on a 32-yard touchdown pass with 1:31 to play in the game, setting off a wild celebration on the Tewksbury sidelines.
"It's unreal," Saunders said. "It was one one of those games you dream about. I never expected to score three touchdowns in my last home game as a senior. It was unreal."
Tewksbury, which clinched the Merrimack Valley Conference Division 2 championship two weeks ago, will now begin preparations for an MIAA Division 2 playoff game at Reading High on Tuesday night, riding high on the momentum gathered by topping rival Wilmington on Thanksgiving Day.
"I'm proud of this team," said Wilmington Coach Mike Barry. "You lose by one score today to a team that's heading to the playoffs. How could you not be proud of them."
Saunders emerged victorious in a back-and-forth battle with Wilmington's senior quarterback Matt Ferreira, who had threw two touchdown passes and kept all three of Wilmington's scoring drives alive by making big plays in critical third and fourth down situations.
After Tewksbury's Chris Bettano gave the Redmen a 20-14 lead on a 31-yard touchdown run with just 5:18 left in the game, Ferreira looked like he had become the hero of the day when he hooked up with senior tight end Kyle Albanese on a 50-yard touchdown pass with 4:01 left to play. Freshman James O'Regan's conversion kick gave Wilmington a 21-20 lead, and it looked like Wildcats were going home happy.
But Saunders, who carried the ball 11 times for 141 yards and completed 3-of-7 passes fo 67 yards in the game, wasn't through yet. He teamed up with senior running back Chris Bettano and marched the Redmen 56 yards on seven plays for the game winning score. Bettano, who carried the ball 14 times for 97 yards and a touchdown in the game, set up the game-winner with a twisting, turning four-yard run on third-and-2 from the Wilmington 36 to keep the deciding drive alive.
Saunders then executed a perfect play-fake on the next play, drawing the Wilmington defense in while McLaughlin slid behind the coverage. Saunder's pass hit McLaughlin on the numbers, and the Redmen had secured one of their most exciting Thanksgiving Day victories in recent memory.
"I'm exhausted. I feel like I played," said an elated TMHS coach Brian Aylward afterward. "It was an emotional roller coaster. There was so much riding on this game as it is and if you add in the extra piece of really wanting to get momemtum going this quick turnaround (for the playoffs) and it was massive."
Check back with Wilmington Patch on Friday for more coverage of Thursday's action.