TEWKSBURY – Several years ago, the Lowell Sun ran a story where they asked all of the high school football coaches of their local teams to name the top coach and Brian Aylward came out on top. Since then, he's been a Coach of the Year through a handful of different newspapers, websites and organizations throughout the entire state.
So, when the Town Crier put together a 10-person panel to choose the Coach of the Decade, Aylward dominated the votes, finishing with eight-out-of-ten first place votes and finishing with 96 points out of 100, compared to the runner-up, who finished with 68.
You can make an argument that Aylward is the best high school football coach in the entire state. After all, who gets more out of kids, and more out of the amount of student-athletes the school has, than the Tewksbury Memorial High School football program? Just last winter, the school that today has 425 male students, lost a 20-7 Super Bowl game to a team that has almost three times the students in Springfield Central.
Over the course of this decade, the Redmen have had just one losing season. From 2010 to the Thanksgiving Day game last week, Aylward has guided the Redmen to a 90-29 record, eight Merrimack Valley Conference Championship titles, three trips to the Super Bowl and three other losses in the state semi-final game. He has enjoyed a perfect 13-0 season back in 2013, has reeled off ten or more wins in each of the past four seasons, has enjoyed nine straight winning seasons and incredibly has lost a combined 12 games in the last seven seasons.
While the 90 wins is certainly impressive, Aylward and his incredible staff of assistants — including Tommy and Mark Bradley, Paul Norton, Brian Hickey and Steve Kasprzak – excel because: they develop their athletes; they put them in the right spot to succeed; they run a disciplined program; are extremely prepared; they make adjustments throughout games; and most importantly, the entire coaching staff and the players, are committed to each other, which is one of the biggest reasons why this program is among the top ranked teams in the entire state throughout almost this entire decade.
"I feel Brian is the best Football Coach in Massachusetts," said TMHS Athletic Director Ron Drouin. "He demands excellence and his players have complete 'buy in' to their program. Our team is always prepared, they practice with a purpose, prepare for each opponent with respect for who they are playing, make excellent 'in game' adjustments, and provide a culture conducive to success. The coaching staff has been together for a long time, they work well together and Brian has fostered that. It's huge in high school athletics to have a long standing highly qualified staff. Brian has created the Football Program in the MVC that everyone wants to be."
PROGRAM ROCKETS AFTER ONE WIN
Of the 90 wins that Tewksbury earned this decade — the obvious Super Bowl win in 2013 — you could argue that the 2011 playoff game against Reading was the biggest victory, and maybe the biggest upset victory the program has ever had.
"I remember that season more for the Reading win (than the Super Bowl loss to Duxbury that followed)," said Aylward. "You talk about one of the all-time upsets since I've been here. They (Reading) had (quarterback) Drew Belcher, who is now playing for the Arizona Cardinals. They had a bunch of good players and I think they went into that game taking us a little lightly and we had kids like Chris Bettano, Danny Altavesta, Derek Tarpey, Kevin Saunders and Frankie McLaughlin and those guys. I don't remember the score, I just remember (Reading) looked like they had never been cut blocked before."
Reading took a 6-0 lead in the game when Belcher connected on a 70-yard pass to Ryan Maney coming in the second quarter. Tewksbury tied it up before the half ended when Chris Bettano caught a 12-yard pass from Kevin Saunders.
In the second half, it was all Tewksbury. Bettano scored on an 8-yard run with Saunders running in the conversion. Then Danny Altavesta put the game away with a 3-yard TD run in the fourth quarter, and Matt Blaisdell booted the extra point for the 21-6 final.
Belcher completed 10-of-22 pass attempts for 143 yards in that game, while, Tewksbury completed just six passes, but came out with the victory.
That win pushed Tewksbury into the Super Bowl, where it lost to a dynamic Duxbury team, 35-0, at Gillette Stadium.
"That win (over Reading) was great but unfortunately, Saunders got hurt at the tail end of that game so here we are going to the Super Bowl with him dinged up on Tuesday and then playing on Saturday. There wasn't enough turn around time (to really get him healthy). But as much as that was a tough loss, a loss is only a loss if you don't take something from it and build to get better."
That two-game swing, the win over Reading and the loss to Duxbury, really put Tewksbury on the map for many reasons – despite the team finishing the season with a 7-6 record.
"The big thing that we took out of that was that it really wasn't about the guys who had the experience from playing in that game, it was more about how old the kids on this (2019) team were at the time," said Aylward. "I remember seeing a picture in the (Boston) Globe (the following day) and Shane (Aylward) was a little kid on the sidelines. If you are a kid that age, you get your eyes (on a Super Bowl appearance) and you can see it and you start to dream it. It sounds corny, but it is what it is. If you can't visualize what it may look like, then you'll go through (your football career) asking yourself, 'why am I going to make these sacrifices when everybody is going to the beach and I'm down here lifting weights and running'. You have to have a vision for why you are making these sacrifices and I don't think there's any substitution for that.
"We have kids who envision what that would be like and they say 'man, wouldn't it be great' and 'what do I need to do to get there'. Then they say things like 'we can do this' and they start talking 'what are we going to be like when we're sophomores and juniors, and we'll be playing with those guys and then those kids who are behind us and if we put all of that together, we'll be pretty good'. Kids start to do that, it's not just coaches. I don't do that because all of the kids are going to grow different.
"I watch youth sports and I tell the kids all of the time, especially at Redmen Camp that when I go to watch games whether it's basketball, baseball or football, and it's not always the kid who runs for the touchdown," continued Alyward. "I'll look at that kid for sure, it's more about what does he do when he gets tackled, what does he do when the team messes up on a play, is he a finger-pointer, or is he a rally the troops kind of player? I look at character stuff. That kid may be the smallest kid in the joint and all the way until he gets up to high school, but if he does the right thing and plays the right way and works hard, then he's going to be pretty good. You may have kids who don't have it yet physically, but they play tough and if they are a worker, and put in the time and work, then they are going to be good players here."
NONE OF US ARE PERFECT, BUT TOGETHER WE ARE PERFECT
A handful of players on that 2011 team were sophomores, and after a 7-5 season, including being MVC D2 champs and losing to Reading 42-6 in the playoff round, those same players came back with a vengeance for the 2013 season.
"If I ever saw a group of guys who were destined to win – and that was not an easy (playoff) run – it was that 2013 team," said Aylward. "I would compare maybe this year where we played some good teams and some tough games – to that 2013 season. The Marblehead and Gloucester games were real tough and we had the (Tommy) Casey interception at the end. That playoff run was really a grind.
"That group of guys were really an amazing group. They could play like no other team I've had. In terms of without speaking words, just by body language, they could turn a switch to a gear that I never thought that they had in particularly on defense, but also on offense. Without me saying anything, developing a hair on fire sense of urgency, this play has to happen (situation) and anytime they felt it slipping away, they would grind and get it done.
"That team had a lot of great athletes, but had size and strength and I don't think we have ever had more of a committed team and that's what we hang our hat on. Those guys did a lot of the extras and they kind of raised the bar on what the expectations are around here. Those guys were believers and if you want to go somewhere you haven't been before, you have to put the work in so you get to that place.
"I remember those guys out there and it had to be the hottest Memorial Day I could remember. It was high 90 something degrees and those guys were all out here running a captain's practice. They were all doing lacrosse, baseball or track too and I told them that they would all burn themselves out. That's just how committed they were."
That team was absolutely loaded with talent, but also dynamite student-athletes, who knew what it took to reach that level both personally and collectively as a team. Three members of that team – Kevin Dick, James Sullivan and Eddie Matovu – also made the list for the Town Crier's Top Ten Male Athletes of the Decade.
That 2013 team finished 13-0, were MVC D2 Champions as well as Division 3 North, Eastern Mass and State Champions. Tewksbury defeated five teams in the first year of the new implemented playoff system including Somerville, 43-7, Gloucester, 28-25, Marblehead 34-27, Melrose, 32-14 and Plymouth South in the Super Bowl back at Gillette, 42-14.
SIX YEARS OF GREATNESS
After losing so many great players from that 2013 team – many went on to play at various colleges,
Tewksbury didn't hit the "rebuilding button" and say "hey we won a Super Bowl, so we're good'. Instead, it was back to work, back to developing and back to getting better each and every day, each and every week.
The 2014 team finished 9-3, were the MVC D2 Champs and lost in the state semi-final game to Melrose, 14-7. In 2015, the Redmen were 8-2, lost in the sectional semi-finals to Danvers by a point. Then 2016,'17,'18 and '19, the team finished 10-1, 10-2, 11-2 and 10-2, combined for 11 more playoff victories, lost in two state semi-final games and then in last year's Super Bowl game.
"Since 2011 we have been able to put ourselves in a position to be relevant at the end of the season – every year," said Aylward. "We have been able to put ourselves into the tournament every year, we have been able to go deep in the tournament every year and sometimes things work out and you make it to Gillette and sometimes they don't work out. To go three times (to Gillette) is a special thing and a lot of programs that's a once-in-a-lifetime thing. We talk about not having it be that way. It may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the kids on that particular team maybe, but we don't want it to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for our program. If you don't have high expectations, you are never going to meet them."
Certainly the expectations are high with Tewksbury each and every year. But besides the aforementioned reasons for the success, there's many other layers to it. Aylward and his staff have the uncanny ability to maximize a lot of different players – and to get them to play well in a number of different positions, which is enormous when injuries occur. The players each and every year are also fully committed to the off-season program of lifting weights, going to camps, doing the 7-vs-7s, and participating in other sports, mainly wrestling, track-and-field and lacrosse, which drastically improves their speed, agility, footwork and of course strength.
"You couldn't find a more deserving coach in the state in any sport or program that deserves Coach of the Decade than Brian," said longtime assistant coach and close friend Tommy Bradley. "Since 2011, the program has won eight MVC titles, and once the playoff system started in 2013, his teams have won four (Division 3) North titles along with making three Super Bowl appearances and winning one state title. That is pretty good for a high school system that currently has 425 boys in the system. Towns and coaches abroad envy his program.
“The thing about Coach Aylward is he knows the success of his program does not happen in the fall, it takes place from the day after Thanksgiving to the start of camp (the following season),” continued Bradley. “The kids know that they have to work at their strength and conditioning to have a shot to play in this system. He is down there everyday to give the kids a chance to do it. You can take all the X's and O's out of it, but getting kids to buy into the work you have to put into year round just to have a chance to win a football game, that's coaching. When you get kids wanting to fight for one another and not to disappoint their teammates and coach for lack of effort, that's coaching. Brian has definitely achieved that and that what separates him from most.”
ONLY AS GOOD AS YOUR TEAM
There's not a coach on the current TMHS Football staff, who couldn't be a head coach at another program and have great success. Tommy Ryan proved that. On the staff, there's longtime veteran guys like Paul Norton and Brian Hickey, who has seen it all, and then Tommy and Mark Bradley, who have both done fine jobs as the two basketball coaches here at the high school. Kasprzak, who will soon join both Brian Aylward and Tommy Bradley into the TMHS Athletic Hall of Fame, has been a tremendous assistant on both the football and wrestling programs for many years.
Brian Aylward was asked about his incredible staff – who in this writer's mind, is a huge reason why Tewksbury separates itself from so many other programs.
"I think the consistency of those guys (on the staff) has been great," said Aylward. "We got a short crew. We have Paul Norton, who has coached forty years of high school football. He's just done a tremendous job with that offensive line year in and year out. He just pieces it together and he works good with my craziness and me wanting to change things, and do things different. I think O-Line coaches in general are very regimented and these are the rules and this is what we do, but I don't like having too many rules because that rule isn't going to work this Saturday and that's just not going to happen. So we'll mix some things up so we can coach game by game to try to win a game. Coach Norton has just been great.
"Having Coach Hickey back with us has been awesome. He's another guy who has 30-something years in of coaching high school football. The wisdom that he and Coach Norton bring is a benefit to me, the other coaches and certainly all of the kids.
"Times have changed but kids are kids and those two have a good way of understanding that different kids need to be motivated in different ways. If any coach is a one size fits all kind of coach, probably isn't going to do too good or he's going to lose some kids or you are not going to be able to connect with some kids. That's the work part of it and you have to realize what makes everyone tick and try to develop strong relationships with them so they will fight, they will fight for you, their school and their town."
Aylward then carried on about his thoughts on the Bradley Brothers and Kasprzak.
"Tommy Bradley is a good friend and we're together a lot during the year," said Aylward. "He's very smart and just has a lot of ideas. I think we fit together pretty well. We watch a lot of football together. If he sees something, he'll try it. He has a good sense of asking 'where do we have to get this team to' and 'let's design this thing' and he's just good that way and really smart.
"Mark Bradley works with the defensive backfield. We don't line up in a 4-4 and play a 4-4. We're not good enough to do that and he understands that. He works with Steve Kasprzak and Kas is a great coach. He has a good connection with all of the kids and he works with that defensive front, but really the three of us will sit and that's usually the first conversation we have of every week. So for example, if we're playing a really good team like Duxbury, Mark will be fighting to get an extra nickel back and Kas will be fighting for another guy upfront, so I have to come in and try to settle that dispute and figure out, pick your poison and figure out what they want to do. What does your gut feeling tell you of what they want to do? Then, let's make them beat us with what they don't want to do.
"Those guys have been good that way and I think we have been able to work together. Defensively is I think where we have been good over the years and that gives our offense more opportunities to get the ball. All of the guys are just awesome and just real committed. They all love it, they are all smart, they all study it and they are all willing to go to clinics and get better."
IT'S TIME TO MAKE TIME
Besides the ten years of football, Aylward also coached the wrestling team for three years this decade, 2010-2012. The 2010 team finished with 14 victories and had a sectional champion and the 2012 team finished with ten wins and also had both a sectional and state champion in Chris London.
Besides the combined 13 seasons of coaching football and wrestling this decade, Aylward has also coached the Unified Basketball program at the high school for each of the past three years, is heavily involved with the 'Best Buddies' program. At home, he and his wife Mary have raised four wonderful kids, Johnny, Amanda, Shane and Braydon.
“Brian is on the go all the time,” said Tommy Bradley. “Raising four great kids is not enough for him. He is out their working and mentoring the kids in best buddies and the unified basketball program. As long as you're from Tewksbury, Brian is all in.”
As if all of that's not enough, Aylward is the first to support so many of the other student-athletes from various other programs, as well as the other TMHS coaches.
"Whenever I think of what makes an athlete or coach successful, I ask myself the following question: 'Would I want my children to be around that person'? With regards to Coach Aylward the answer is a resounding 'yes'! My kids love all things Redmen Football because they adore Coach Aylward and his players,” said fellow teacher and former three-sport coach Peter Molloy. “From a pure football perspective, a quick conversation with Coach Aylward on X’s & O’s and it becomes pretty clear Brian has forgotten more football than most other coaches know! So, it’s not really a surprise that his teams win.
“Much like the others who succeed at a high level, Coach Aylward draws people in and helps to elevate their expectations and that of the team. Brian values dependability, accountability and commitment; and it’s those values that he blends perfectly with his omniscient knowledge of the game that brings out the very best in his football teams. Teams that are often undersized physically. The result of all of this is not just winning football games. The result is the molding of young men who go on to become outstanding pillars of their school and community.
“The following story exemplifies why Brian is such a great coach and mentor of young men. Back in 2011, my father passed away and the wake was the morning of the Super Bowl. Needless to say Brian had a pretty important day, however, he made it a point to attend the wake before he headed off to Gillette. It's actions like this that strike at the heart of who Coach Aylward is and why he is successful.”