DRACUT — Before the season started and pretty much through the first three or four weeks of the season, Tewksbury Memorial High School football coach really didn't know what to expect out of the Redmen. After all the team was returning just three full-time starters from last year's Super Bowl team, and after that was a handful of players who logged a considerable amount of playing time, but in a sense were unproven since they weren't full-time players.
Over the last seven weeks, some questions were answered. Aylward and his staff were able to identify the team's weaknesses and build up or clean-up on those, all the while a handful of players were able to develop. Those two ingredients — as well as the entire roster of players out on the fields busting their tails and executing the game plans — are one of many reasons why the Redmen celebrated with their fifth MVC Division 2 League Championship in this decade alone, after dominating Dracut 44-0 on Friday night at their place. Tewksbury last won the title in 2016.
The win over Dracut gave the Redmen a 6-1 overall record and in this case a 4-0 record against MVC D2 foes including last year's MVC D2 and Division 2 state champion North Andover, as well as Billerica, Chelmsford and Dracut. Of those four teams, all but Billerica have advanced to this weekend's playoffs.
"You have to go through that learning curve and find out what you really have, what you can do, what you can't do,"said Coach Aylward. "We found out early on what we couldn't do. We usually find those things out during our pre-season scrimmages, but this year was a little weird. We ended up figuring it out and I'm very proud of the kids for winning the league championship and they should be very proud of themselves and each other."
In the early goings of the season, senior Shane Aylward — a returning All-Scholastic — really stood out. He came through with a number of big touchdowns and big plays and his dominance at times, allowed the team's younger and less inexperienced players to get comfortable, and then grow and develop.
Over the last few weeks, especially with Shane Aylward out, a number of guys in the skilled positions have really emerged. Junior quarterback Ryne Rametta seems to have a handle on running an offense and has looked much better as of late. On Friday, he did toss a TD pass and three conversion passes, but offensively the night belonged to the tandem of junior Kyle Darrigo and sophomore Danny Fleming.
"We have two guys who have really been outstanding for us (lately) individually and Kyle Darrigo is one of them," said coach Aylward. "When we face teams they look over and see a kid who is (smaller) and they have kids who are the same. So what's the difference? It's heart, it's determination and it's toughness and he's been outstanding for us. And he cares. He fights for his teammates. If you have a guy who you give the ball to and he's going to do that, and his teammates block for him, you take that any day of the week.
"The other one is Danny Fleming. He's a kid who has been on his way up for a while now and we have put him in a number of different positions. He has settled into a role where you don't know where he's going to be and that's what has been the most impressive about him.
“Sometimes you get kids who are talented but the knowledge of the game is limited, therefore their role becomes limited and Danny has really come along. He's focused, he's in the right place and he does well wherever we put him. That's the thing is we want to put him in a position where he can just go. He's just such a good player."
Like any championship team, the credit doesn't stop at just a few players. Offensively Rametta (6 TD passes), Darrigo/ Aylward and Kalu Olu (16 combined TDs), have all been spectacular, but really so have a handful of other guys who aren't shining in those skilled-positions with the ball in their hands all of the time.
"We have other guys who have been playing well all season and who have gone under the radar," said Coach Aylward. "Owen Gilligan at tight end (is an example). He's just had such a great year. He's been such a workhorse the last couple of years and this year he has really put it together.
Then our guys upfront (on the offensive and defensive lines), I'll match up with anybody. We have guys like Robbie Kimtis, who is our leader up there. He's our smartest guy and he's one of the more experienced guys. He has done such a great job since the start of last season.
"Mike Woodford has really settled in and done some good things at tackle. Anthony Capelo had some concerns early on snapping the ball and stuff like that, but he has worked really hard on cleaning those things up. He's as tough as anyone we have out there. Dylan Chandler is probably one of our most talented linemen in terms of size and ability and he has played more consistently. We are going to need those guys to be ready to face some big guys throughout this tournament."
Aylward went on to praise two more of his players.
"Will McKay has had a great season for us at linebacker," said Aylward. "Early on in the season, we had concerns about our linebackers, but he is a kid who has really developed and we just have been seeing so many good things from him.
"And Nolan Timmons on defense has been immense. He has been filling in a bit for Shane, switching from safety to a cornerback position and he's just been so great for us. He's really good at doing a lot of different stuff and he just continues to get better and better every week."
Certainly the list can continue to go about all of the players who have developed and contributed to the league title, but for space purposes we will leave it to the five captains: Aylward, Tyler Keough, Capelo, Kimtis and Woodford, who all have played a pivotal role in keeping the strong tradition in this program going. They hope it can keep going for the next few weeks.
"We are going to try to last as long as we can in this tournament, but we have to take it one week at a time," said Coach Aylward. "If we can win this week, we'll move onto next week and it'll be the same all over again — we just try to stay in the tournament. We'll see what happens. We're going to go through the same process no matter who we play in terms of preparation."