New Season, New Challenges For TMHS Football Team
Sep 10, 2015 11:32AM
By Rick Spencer
James Sullivan puts on the brakes and changes course.
Each new season usually brings a new set of challenges for area high school football coaches, and that has never been more true for Tewksbury Memorial High School coach Brian Aylward than it is this fall.
Already faced with the graduation of one of the most productive trio’s of running backs in school history, Aylward is also charged with preparing his team to move up from the Merrimack Valley Conference’s small school division to the MVC large school division this season, in spite of the fact that Tewksbury High has the smallest total enrollment of any school in the league.
“We’re no longer calling it the small school division and the large school division, because it doesn’t depend on the size of the school anymore,” Aylward explained. “It’s the Upper Division and the Lower Division now.”
But in spite of facing a schedule laced with the likes of Lowell High School (enrollment: 3133 students), Andover High School (1784 students), Chelmsford High School (1695 students) and Lincoln-Sudbury (1599 students), Aylward is undaunted by the challenge of finding enough football talent in his 905-student body to field a team talented enough to make yet another deep run into the MIAA Division 3 playoffs this fall.
Tewksbury High hopes to continue an impressive four-year run of post-season success that has included an undefeated Super Bowl championship season in 2013, a Super Bowl runner-up campaign in 2011, and a post-season run to the state semi-finals last fall. But the Redmen will have to find a way to garner some victories against one of the toughest slates of opponents they’ve faced in many, many years if they want to be playing meaningful games after the leaves begin falling off the trees this autumn.
Predictably, Aylward is stoic in the face of this challenge.
“It’s nothing new for us,” Aylward said as he prepped his team for the season-opener against a highly-regarded Concord-Carlisle team this Saturday. “Even when we played in the small school division, we were always playing schools with larger enrollments than we had. You’d have to go back to 2000 to find a team on our schedule (Tyngsboro) with a smaller enrollment than we had.”
Still, the Redmen are going to have to re-invent themselves this fall if they want to play David to the rest of their schedule’s Goliath. First off, last June’s graduation ceremonies hit Aylward as hard as any graduation has hit him in his 20-plus years at the TMHS helm. No fewer than seven members of last year’s Tewksbury High football squad will be playing college football this fall. Most notable among them is James Sullivan, the standout running back and defensive back whose four-year stay at TMHS was as productive as virtually any other in Redmen football history.
A four-year varsity starter, Sullivan rushed for over 3,200 yards in his career, and scored 53 touchdowns for TMHS. He also rang up over 1000 receiving yards and seemingly earned at least that many post-season awards, among them Boston Globe and Boston Herald all-scholastic accolades, and two MVC Division 2 Player of The Year awards.
Sullivan will join former teammates Johnnie Aylward and Eddie Motovu on the St. Anselm’s College football roster this fall, and if that weren’t enough, his backfield mates – Tom Casey (Springfield College) and Jimmy Hirtle (UMass-Dartmouth) have also moved on to the college ranks.
Place kicker Mitch Miskell (Mass Maritime), linebacker Andrew Nguyen (Springfield College) and defensive backs Ryan Bednarek (Fitchburg State) and Ryan Carey (Western New England) are also launching college football careers this month, giving the Redmen an unprecedented seven collegiate players that graduated from the 2014 squad.
“It’s pretty impressive to have that many kids move on to the college level in one year,” Alyward said. “But it also means we’re going to be counting on a lot of kids who have been in the program for the last three or four years to step up and play a bigger role this year.”
Chief among those players is returning starting quarterback Brett Morris, who piloted the team to an 8-3 record and a deep play-off run last year. Morris was impressive in both of the team’s pre-season scrimmages this year, burning talented squads from Beverly and North Andover for big gains. Morris has featured a noticeably quicker release so far this season, and his arm strength has also been impressive.
“Those are some of the things we worked with him on in the off-season,” Aylward said. “He’s definitely more ready this fall, with a year under his belt.”
Morris’s favorite target over the past few weeks has been 6-1 senior wide receiver Adam Gajjaoui, who showed flashes of brilliance last season and also played a key-role in the TMHS basketball team’s record-setting 20-plus win season last winter. A natural athlete with an eye-popping leaping ability, Gajjaoui was a puzzle that neither Beverly nor North Andover could solve in the team’s two pre-season scrimmages.
“He caught eight or nine balls for something like 170 yards and two touchdowns against North Andover,” Aylward reported. “He had a tremendous summer in the weight room. He’s always been an explosive athlete and I think he has grown up and matured a lot this year. He understands his role for us now and we’re hoping he has a monster season.”
Morris will also have his an arsenal of talented tight ends to throw to, including seniors Bobby Piccolo and Ryan Sugrue and juniors Bobby Catanzano and Joe Rossburg. He’ll be protected by a solid front line that includes Patrick Wilde, Mark Gorman, Billy Bennett, T.J. Contalonis, Sean Barker, Stephen Bonugli, Rickey Tibbets and Chris Nardone.
But don’t look for Morris to drop back and throw the ball on every down this year. Senior running back Troy Carey has proven to be an effective weapon in the team’s two scrimmages, and Ryan Morris and Steven Rosa will lead the way at fullback.
“A lot of people will look at our graduates and think we're gonna have to throw the ball a lot, but we're making some adjustments on offense,” Aylward said. “We’re going to look a little bit different than you’ve seen in past. We’ll still try to get first downs as best we can, and we’ll try to get a pop and score when we can. There’s a ton of different ways to make things happen on offense, and we’re going to try to get a little creative this year.”
While Aylward realizes that this year’s monster schedule makes another undefeated run to a Super Bowl Championship like Tewksbury saw in 2013 somewhat unlikely, he hopes the stiff early competition will prepare the team well for the Division 3 play-offs, should the Redmen win enough games to qualify yet again this season.
“We qualified for the Super Bowl in 2011 by beating the upper division teams,” Aylward pointed out. “Anything is possible if the kids believe that they can do it. We’re gonna try our best every time out. That’s the only thing we can promise. We’re not gonna get out worked and we’re not gonna get out toughed.”
Tewksbury opens its season this Saturday afternoon, Sept. 12, at home against Concord-Carlisle at Doucette Field. Game time has been moved back to 3:00 p.m. because of SAT testing.