TEWKSBURY — Tom Casey might have guessed, and if he did he hit the lottery.
With 2:43 left in a tied championship game, Tewksbury’s junior linebacker jumped in front of Marblehead’s Dylan Cressy, intercepted Matt Millett’s pass and took it back 24 yards for a touchdown.
Casey’s return sparked his team to a 34-21 win over Marblehead Saturday afternoon, giving Tewksbury (10-0) the first Division 3 Northeast championship.
Two snaps before the interception, Millett fired a bullet to Cressy on a similar route. It’s hard to say if Casey subsequently guessed, read the play or had some inside information, but Magician head coach Jim Rudloff gave him all the credit for the game-changing play.
“Just smart,” said Rudloff. “Right before the snap he turned to the kid next to him and I think I heard him say ‘hitch.’ Kudos to him. It was a great play.”
The Redmen missed the extra point, giving Marblehead (8-2) the ball back trailing by just six (27-21). But Tewskbury recovered a fumble after a sack, and James Sullivan (game-high 144 rushing yards) scored from 22 yards out to make it 34-21.
Marblehead and Tewksbury traded punches throughout the second half, with both teams getting countless big stops on defense. Yet in a matter of minutes, the Redmen put 13 points on the board to advance to next weekend’s state semifinal against Division 3 Northwest champ Melrose at Lowell’s Cawley Stadium.
“The whole second half, you could feel the sense of urgency on those big downs,” said Tewksbury head coach Brian Aylward. “Both teams played with savvy. There were a lot of kids getting after it out there.”
The Magicians defense, led by middle linebackers Liam Gillis and Ben Anderson, strung out the Redmen’s runs in the second half. Marblehead was losing the field position battle for most of the last two quarters, but continuously got stops on big third downs.
“They seemed to have an extra gear on those big downs in the second half,” said Aylward.
Tewksbury got similar stops as the 21-21 tie stood. Marblehead junior Brooks Tyrrell, who didn’t play on defense or special teams due to an ankle injury, didn’t find much running room on the inside after halftime. The junior gutted it out, carrying for 129 yards on 18 rushes and catching four passes for 54 more yards.
“Brooks maybe shouldn’t have been in there. Anything he gave us was gravy,” said Rudloff. “We did a lot of uncharacteristic things (Saturday) and made critical errors. That’s no excuse; Tewksbury is the best team in (Division 3) Northeast and they did a great job.”
The first half was a shootout. After a Gillis fumble recovery, Marblehead got on the board first when Millett (121 yards passing, 2 TDs, 3 INTs) found Tyrrell for a 5-yard TD pass. Tewskbury answered immediately when Eddie Matovu took a counter 78 yards to the house.
The Redmen got the lead after the teams traded interceptions (Cressy had Marblehead’s) as Sullivan scored from three yards out. But sophomore Mark Cohen took the kickoff 96 yards to the house to tie it for Marblehead. Matt Millett had a pancake block to help spring Cohen, who weaved through a host of tacklers before turning on the jets.
“We couldn’t use Brooks on returns and other kids stepped up. We hadn’t had any great returns or plays in the kicking game all year, and for a young kid to make that play was huge,” Rudloff said of Cohen. “He’ll be a big contributor for us the next two years.”
Will Millett hauled in a 13-yard scoring pass from his brother Matt with 4:43 left in the first half to give Marblehead a 21-14 lead. Tyrrell had a 55-yard run to spark the 97-yard drive, which came after the Magicians’ defense turned Tewksbury over on downs.
The Redmen answered with Johnny Aylward’s 30-yard TD pass to Kevin Dick with 1:12 left before halftime.
Matt Millett led Marblehead down to the Tewskbury 20-yard line before the break, but the Magicians turned it over on downs and it stayed 21-21 at the break.
Sullivan and Matovu (106 on 11 carries) each went over 100 yards for Tewskbury, which had 313 rushing yards. Linebacker John Saunders also had a monster game for the hosts.
“They’re the best team we’ve faced all year and played like it. I wish the end wasn’t as blown open as it was, but the wheels kind of came off,” said Rudloff.
“All week we said if we execute, we’ll win this game. We didn’t, especially in the last five minutes.”
Still, the Magicians have won at least eight games for the third straight year and earned a share of the NEC North crown while advancing to the sectional final. They pushed one of Eastern Mass’ top 10 teams for close to 40 minutes, and there was no shame in that from Rudloff’s perspective.
“We graduated five kids from last year’s team playing college football. We weren’t supposed to finish third this year, so in that way I’m as proud of this team as any we’ve had,” he said. “This team didn’t have the expectations that others had. I’m very proud of the kids for that reason.”