By Dan Harrison
---- — TEWKSBURY — The Marblehead offense was able to hang with undefeated Tewksbury in the first half of Saturday’s Northeast Division 3 football final.
In the second half however, it was the Magicians defense — led by defensive ends Will Millett and Spencer Craig — that kept the visitors in the game before a few late turnovers deep in Marblehead territory sealed the team’s fate in the 34-21 loss to the Redmen.
Tewksbury won the field position battle in the second half, leaving the Magician defense with a short field behind them. But time and again the unit kept the Redmen from getting into the red zone. They forced punt after punt in what was a tie game for the majority of the final two quarters after Marblehead had surrendered 21 first half points.
The Magicians defensive unit was playing with some banged up guys who battled through the pain and adversity to keep their team in contention.
“It was nerves in the beginning of the game on things like counters where we weren’t doing the simple things,” explained Marblehead (8-2) coach Jim Rudloff. “There really weren’t any great adjustments (at halftime). The kids just stepped up.”
The Redmen hit a 78-yard inside reverse for a touchdown in the opening quarter and consistently gashed the Magicians for big chunks on runs to the outside. The second half was a completely different story thanks to outstanding play from Millett and Craig.
The two defensive ends showed incredible instincts on sweeps — sometimes shooting past their blockers to make tackles in the backfield while other times showing the patience to contain the Tewksbury backs, forcing them all the way to the sidelines.
Craig (10 tackles) had six second half tackles, including two for a loss, while Millett had three second half tackles.
“Those two defensive ends were outstanding,” Tewksbury (10-0) head coach Brian Aylward said of Craig and Millett. “(In the first half) both teams got a chance to see what the other team was trying to do and they (Marblehead) had an extra gear they hit on big plays and third downs.”
Craig and Millett also were able to get pressure on Redmen quarterback Johnny Aylward whenever he dropped back in the pocket. The Magician secondary — led by Dylan Cressy (an interception and three tackles for a loss), Dean Fader (five tackles, one for a loss) and Jeremy Gillis (six tackles) — were able to keep the dangerous Tewksbury receiving threats in front of them.
Cressy, in particular, has been the Magicians’ defensive linchpin all season and didn’t disappoint on Saturday.
“Dylan Cressy, I wouldn’t hesitate to call him our MVP; there’s nothing he can’t do,” said Rudloff. “He had the body of a 90-year old man. The Lord invented him to be 135 pounds and play badminton. The things he’s done with his body just to get on the field, he and kids like him have been giants for us. Those kinds of kids have made this the unexpected season that we had and I’m extremely proud of the kids for that reason”
And then there was senior captain Liam Gillis patrolling between the tackles at inside linebacker. Gillis had 10 tackles and a fumble recovery on the day and was a major factor in keeping the Redmen to just two or three yards on first down runs up the middle.
Defensive linemen Thomas Koopman (seven tackles), Bryan Graf (tackle for a loss) and Tommy Gabel (three tackles) fought hard against a massive Tewksbury offensive line.
The Gillis brothers, meanwhile, helped set the tone — something they’ve done for Rudloff all season. Liam Gillis has been a main fixture at inside backer for the past two seasons, while his brother Jeremy moved to safety midway through the season and has flourished ever since.
“They’ve given us immense leadership,” explained Rudloff. You come back to coach those kind of guys. They’re the type of kids you want dating your daughter.”