WILMINGTON & TEWKSBURY – Since 1993, I have covered the Wilmington-Tewksbury Thanksgiving Day game. Certainly there's been thrilling games, sloppy yet entertaining games and there's been some dud games as well. In any case, I put together a list of my top five games that I have covered over the last 27 years.

#5 1998

Wilmington 14, Tewksbury 7

Entering this contest, the Wildcats hadn't won since 1991. I remember that game as it was my senior year of high school and when the final whistle blew, all of us knuckleheads from the visitor's side stormed the field celebrating the 32-28 victory.

This 1998 game was just the third under head coach Bob Almeida. In '96, his team almost pulled out the incredible upset. In '97, he watched Dave Shunamon completely shut down the 'Cats offensive attack.

In 1998, he had a pesky, hard working team that prevailed in a defensive battle. The 'Cats defense came up big on the first offensive series. The Redmen started the game off on their own 5 and moved it all the way to the Wilmington 5, and that stopped when Brian Shea tackled Erik Hamilton, forcing a fumble and the 'Cats took over. Three plays later, Wilmington's Matt Minghella was tackled in the end zone. It was first called a safety but the referees ruled that the ball squirted loose and Tewksbury fell on it, thus the safety was changed to a touchdown and Tewksbury led 7-0 with 4:43 left in the first quarter.

The score remained that way until the third quarter. The 'Cats strung together a 12-play drive capped off when Mike Gennetti went 16 yards up the middle before spinning and falling backwards into the end zone.

Then after that, Jonathan Aprile came up with a defensive interception which set up a game winning Josh Hiltz to Dave DeAmato 16-yard TD pass.

"I told everyone at halftime, that I was not walking off the field with another loss,” said DeAmato, who after WHS, walk-on at Syracuse University and became the football team’s longsnapper. “Everyone was in tears before the game. We knew we would win this game.

Said Gennetti, “I can't explain it. It's the best feeling I've ever had in my entire life. It's the best, the best. We would not accept a loss. No way were we walking off this field without a win. We came together and everyone did this together.”

It was the first of six wins over a 12-year period for Almeida, and certainly one he won't forget.

“I'm just so ecstatic for my players right now,” said Almeida. “They worked so hard for this, so hard. They could have easily packed up their tents and gone home (at halftime) but they didn't. They kept believing in one another that they could do it. And they did. We finally did. Oh my God, we finally did it.”

#4 2007

Tewksbury 28, Wilmington 17

The roles were reversed in this one. Tewksbury entered the '07 game with a four-game losing streak, but running back Mike Hanifin made sure it didn't stretch to five.

Immediately within the first few minutes of the game, the Redmen had a 14-0 lead. Derek Lowe caught a 60-yard pass from QB Chris Texeira and then Matt Bailey recovered a fumble in the end zone. Those two scores with two kicks by Ronnie Wallace quickly had Tewksbury ahead.

Wilmington countered with 17 unanswered points. Hall of Famer Ernie Mello scored on a two-yard run, Steve Stewart booted a 25-yard field goal and Mello scored his second from 1 yard out and the 'Cats were up 17-14 after the third quarter.

The fourth quarter belonged to Hanifin. He scored on a 33-yard pass from Texeira and then polished it off with a 2-yard run. Both scores came in the last 4:57 of the game.

In the Town Crier's Football section promoting the game, he predicted that Tewksbury would come through with the win.

"I had to come through with my promise," he said before later adding, "We just kept saying that they weren't going to win five times in a row and we just had to gather ourselves."

Said Coach Brian Aylward, "(Mike) showed that (promise), (Those two touchdowns are) something he's going to remember for the rest of his life and something I think a lot of people will remember for quite some time."

#3 2011

Tewksbury 28, Wilmington 21

This could be a stretch on my part, but I think this win for Tewksbury is what jump started the entire decade of excellence. In dramatic fashion, the Redmen came from behind to beat Wilmington. Then five days later, they pulled out arguably the biggest playoff upset win in program history over Reading, 21-6, before losing to an outstanding Duxbury team in the Super Bowl. That followed with three straight league titles, a Super Bowl title in 2013, 18-combined wins the next two seasons, and then advancing to the Eastern Mass Championship, the Super Bowl and the Eastern Mass championship the next three seasons.

Call me crazy but I think Kevin Saunders and Frank McLaughlin had a lot to do with that run.

In the 2011 game, Wilmington had leads of 7-6 and 14-12 after the first and second quarters. It was still 14-12 early in the fourth quarter. Chris Bettano gave Tewksbury a quick lead with a 30-yard TD run and his conversion rush made it 20-14. Right after that, Wilmington's Kyle Albanese scored on a 50-yard TD strike by QB Matt Ferreira.

Then with 1:31 left in the game, McLaughlin caught a 32-yard pass from Saunders, before Bettano's conversion reception seal it.

“We were running the ball a lot and they were ready for (another running play), so I went up to coach and said 'let's try a pass to the corner of the end zone'. We were getting yards but the clock was running down and I didn't think we would have enough time to get into the end zone. I know my passing game isn't the best around, but I wanted to step it up on this one play,” said Saunders.

Added McLaughlin, “I was anxious. Then when we snapped the ball, I saw the linebacker bite for play action and I was wide open. All I had to do was catch the ball. It seemed like the ball was up there forever, and I was watching every spiral and I just said to myself, 'don't drop it'."

#2 1996

Tewksbury 17, Wilmington 14

In 1999, I wrote a column saying that the '96 contest was better than the '99 one, but I think a day after it went to print, I realized that was wrong and the '99 game was one for the ages.

Still the '96 game was indeed a classic. It was special for two big reasons: Wilmington almost pulled out an incredible upset against a team that went on to win the Super Bowl; And Matt Petros.

Wilmington took a 14-3 lead with 6:34 left in the game. Tewksbury got on the board first with a 32-yard field goal by Helda Rosa, before Billy Harrison scored on a 1-yard run later on in the second quarter. The score stayed the same until the fourth when the late Hall of Famer Sean Kerrigan scored on a 43-yard run and his PAT kick made it an 11-point lead.

Twenty-nine seconds later, Petros — who went to the Division 2 College Baseball World Series with Kerrigan playing for UMass-Lowell — completely changed the momentum. Usually a running back, he lined up in an odd formation and did the old dipsy-doodle — where no one knows who has the ball — trick play.

"(On that play) I play quarterback and we do a bunch of fakes and they tell me who to hand-off to. I faked to everyone and went up the middle. I was so wide-open, no one touched me,” said Petros.

On their next possession, the Redmen iced the game when Tim Lavoie scored on a three-yard run and Shunamon booted the PAT.

“Our defense is what won us the game,” said then head coach Bob Aylward. “We really just had that one big run. Wilmington seemed to adjust very well to our formations, but (Petros' touchdown) they had a little trouble with that one. I'm very grateful, (Wilmington's) staff and their kids did a great job. Jamie Campbell played superb. I coached his father Leo and boy that guy would be so proud of (his son). Wilmington has a lot of good players and all of them played very well today.”

#1 1999

Tewksbury 21, Wilmington 14

Since I've been covering the games, I don't recall any other one being decided on the final play.

This game was absolutely crazy. From start to finish, it had everything you could have asked for.

On the first play from scrimmage, Tewksbury QB Tommy Sullivan connected with Erik Hamilton for a 91-yard TD pass down the left sideline and the kick made it 7-0. The Redmen then kicked off only to see the late Mark Jepson return it 86 yards for the touchdown. He got big help on a great block by Jeff Coughlin.

“It's a weird feeling when you do that,” said Jepson. “I could never believe it. The blocks were tremendous and I owe it all (to my teammates).”

The score remained tied into the second quarter. Sullivan tossed a screen pass to Hamilton, who went in for the 34-yard score, capping a 10-play, 88-yard drive. Jon Takach booted his second of three kicks on the day. That gave Tewksbury a 14-7 halftime lead.

To open the third quarter, Tewksbury kicked off and again it went into the hands of Jepson, who again returned it for a 79-yard touchdown. He was helped on this one by a terrific block by John DiPasquale.

“The second one was the same thing. We proved that we could come back. (Once again) my teammates blocked their hearts out,” said Jepson.

With the score tied, Wilmington continued to have momentum on its side. The 'Cats drove the length of the field but Mark Boudreau intercepted a pass at the one foot line of the Tewksbury end zone to negate any score.

Then late in the fourth quarter, Wilmington was driving again. After Tewksbury's Bryan Deshler came through with a number of QB sacks and pressure plays, the 'Cats were facing a fourth-and-16 situation from the T20. Quarterback Josh Hiltz lofted a pass to the end zone to Sean Quigley – who had simply a marvelous game – and he caught it but was ruled out of bounds. There's been evidence to say otherwise.

“I caught it and the kid (Boudreau) pushed me out of bounds,” said Quigley. “I don't think I was out of bounds. The (referee) said I just had one foot in.”

Said Almeida: “I guess you see things the way you want to see them. I thought (Quigley) caught it in bounds. If anything, it looked like he was pushed out of bounds. I thought it should have been a touchdown. I don't understand why it wasn't, but I could be wrong.”

Quickly after that, the Wildcats got the ball back. With 2:09 to go, Hiltz went back to pass and the ball. He felt some pressure by Tewksbury linemen Larry Dingle and Jason Stotik. He then unleashed a throw and the ball was tipped and landed right into the hands of Ryan Carlson, who returned it to the House for a 38-yard winning score. Carlson, who would later play with Jepson at Wagner College, was an incredibly gifted athlete who always seemed to shine in big moments.

“I thought I was going to drop it,” said Carlson.

Wilmington again got the ball back and had a chance to tie it up. Starting on its own 40, Wilmington got one first down after rushes from Bobby French and Eric Banda, who went on to play at Northeastern and Merrimack respectively, for a combined 17 yards, sandwiched between a three yard loss by Jepson. On the next play, Wilmington went to the trick book with a double reverse option pass play. Quigley tossed a 40-yard pass to Minghella, who despite three guys on him, pulled down the catch to the Redmen 8 yard line. With 18 seconds left on the clock Hiltz was sacked by Deshler, before he spiking it on second down. That left six seconds left on the clock. Hiltz then threw to the end zone in the direction of Quigley, but it was out his reach.

Quigley finished the game with 94 receiving yards, the 40-yard pass and also had two defensive interceptions. Upon shaking hands with the Tewksbury team, Brian Aylward was quick to seek out Quigley.

“You are a great football player,” he said, and then moments later in a post-game interview, he offered, “That kid was definitely the player of the game today. He can play the game of football. He had a heck of a game.”

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