BILLERICA — Ever since Wilmington left the Merrimack Valley Conference — in terms of football after the 1994 season — besides Tewksbury on Thanksgiving, the Wildcats had only matched up against one MVC team since, when former coach Bob Almeida led the team to an exciting home victory over Andover.
On Friday night, the Wildcats faced Billerica in the season opener, 'Endowment Game' which means, win or lose, it would not count in the standings. It was the first meeting between these two teams since 1994. Billerica had won the previous five meetings with the last 'Cats victory coming in 1989.
Although the Indians made it six in a row, this one wasn't easy. Wilmington played absolutely fantastic — especially in the first quarter and first half really — before a few big plays turned the game around, with Billerica coming out on the winning side at 28-7, before a decent crowd at the Marshall Middle School.
Billerica finished last season with a 4-6 record and returned almost all of its skilled players, including QB Nolan Houlihan, wide receiver Colby Cyrus and running backs Brian Hamilton and Nick Gualtieri.
However, the team lost almost all of its experienced linemen, and also were without its best returning lineman, who has yet to suit up during the pre-season.
Wilmington on the other hand, finished 3-8 last year and brought back a ton of freshmen and sophomores who saw varsity playing time down the stretch when the long list of upperclassmen were nursing season-ending injuries.
In this 54th meeting between the two clubs (Billerica now leads 24-23-7), Wilmington struck first as QB Tristan Ciampa (9-for-20, 134 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs), connected with Stephen Smolinsky for a 15-yard TD strike and Smolinsky booted the PAT giving the 'Cats a quick 7-0 lead with 5:47 left in the first quarter (12 minute quarters now). It was the first TD pass for Ciampa in a varsity game.
Billerica had a hard time getting any consistency going on the offensive side of the ball. Gavin Erickson made a great play breaking up a pass, Dean Nally followed with a QB sack and later on Jared Venezia also sacked Houlihan.
The game remained 7-0 in favor of Wilmington, and the 'Cats went three-and-out and on fourth down from their own 6, the punt went out of bounds at the 30. Nine plays later, Billerica scored as Hamilton went in from a yard out on fourth-and-goal and the kick was good to tie the game up at 7-7 with 2:35 left in the second quarter.
Wilmington again went three-and-out and the punt went 32 yards to the Billerica 34. The Indians quickly moved the ball down field and tried two trick passing plays, one almost working for a TD, but fell short and the teams went into the locker room still knotted up.
The score remained 7-7 and Wilmington's offense started a drive on its own 13 with 5:32 left in the third.
After a couple of penalties, Ciampa went to the air and connected on four straight passes, moving the ball to the 38. Facing third-and-three, Turner elected to take a chance and keep the offense on the field, but Bailey Smith's attempt to run right to the outside didn't work, and Wilmington turned the ball over on downs. The next play, Gualtieri ran the ball in from 37 yards out for what proved to be the game winning score.
“We made some mistakes on special teams stuff,” said Wilmington head coach Craig Turner. “We couldn't really punt so we went for it there on fourth down and we took a chance to get out of our own end. They were sending ten guys and we had too many young kids on the edge, so we thought (the punt would have) been blocked, and the (previous) punts were going fifteen yards, so we said 'let's do it, let's give it a shot'. Even if we punted and got fifteen yards, we weren't touching the kid because he could into the end zone from anywhere.”
Wilmington was able to manage two first downs on the ensuing offensive series, but an incomplete pass on fourth-and-five from the Billerica 40, ended the drive. On the first play from scrimmage, Houlihan gave a lateral pass to Gualtieri, who darted through Wilmington's defense for a 60-yard score to make it 21-7 with 8:52 left in the game.
Cyrus then finished the scoring on an 80-yard interception return.
"I'm very proud of our guys," said Turner. "That's an awesome team. They are good, real good. I thought we went toe-to-toe with them, but we need to clean some things up. They wore us down in the end. I was just really impressed with the way our kids fought. They were really tough, they were really, really physical and we were very well prepared defensively, we were very well prepared.
“Offensively (for us, Billerica has) some really guys on their back end and when we got down 14-7, it became tough to throw the ball. We were still able to make some plays just not consistent enough. We will be better off when we can stick to running the ball, some play/action stuff. Tristan make a nice pass on some play/action to Smolinsky there for the touchdown.
“It just felt like we were never on offense tonight and really didn't have a shot, but that's a really good football team and I think we played them really tough.”
Wilmington will officially open the season this Friday with another non-league game against Woburn, who plays out of the Middlesex League Liberty Division.