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Sussex Central does it again, downing Middletown for state football title

Kevin Tresolini
Delaware News Journal

DOVER – During the summer, Sussex Central High football players didn’t even know if they’d have a football season.

When their abbreviated seven-game regular-season ended, they weren’t certain if they’d earned a state tournament berth.

No wonder they so treasured hoisting that DIAA championship trophy Saturday afternoon at Dover Stadium.

The Golden Knights exerted their authority with a touchdown drive on the game’s opening series then kept making the necessary plays to down Middletown 28-19 in the Division I championship game of the 50th annual DIAA Football Tournament.

Sussex Central celebrates the win against Middletown at the DIAA Division I football championship game at Dover High School in Dover, Del.

The knockout punch came when Sussex Central quarterback Zimir Gardner darted 41 yards for a touchdown with 1:55 left on the first play after Dion Stephens’ sack forced Middletown’s fifth turnover of the day. Juan Amezcua Justiniani’s fourth extra-point kick made it 28-13.

RETURN ENGAGEMENT: Golden Knights seek 2018 repeat

Colby Chambers’ third touchdown pass of the game for Middletown, a 35-yarder to Zy’Aire Tart with 1:24 left, was too little too late.

Sussex Central had gone ahead 21-13 with 9:37 left when senior fullback P.J. Stratton bolted 65 yards out of the Golden Knights’ Delaware Wing-T attack for a touchdown. Middletown had just pulled within 14-13 two plays earlier.

“I appreciate it even more,” Stratton said of winning the state title in a year completely altered by COVID-19.

“It was a long run, with the corona stuff and everything going on. We didn’t know if we were going to have a season or not but we just kept working and working and then the season popped up and here we are.”

No. 4-seeded Sussex Central, which upset top-seeded Henlopen North rival Smyrna with a late semifinal touchdown 38-34, closed a 7-2 season.

It was the second state title in three years for Sussex Central, which had won its first in 2018 over Salesianum after four previous title-game losses, all since 2000.

Sussex Central's Zimir Gardner (10) hands the ball off to Sussex Central's Phillip Stratton (18) in the DIAA Division I football championship game at Dover High School in Dover, Del.

“It’s a great feeling as a sophomore and, as a senior, it can’t get better than that,” said senior offensive tackle/linebacker Alton Dennis, who started for both title teams. “All the work we put in, even when wouldn’t have a season, we just came together, got this ‘ship.”

PLAYMAKER EXTRAORDINAIRE: Tart learned playbook, lifted Middletown

A 19-7 win over Salesianum this season on Nov. 27, a week after the Sals’ victory over defending state champion Hodgson, keyed Sussex Central making the tournament.

“It’s very satisfying with what we had to overcome and achieve,” said 25th-year Sussex Central coach John Wells. “ . . . This legacy for this team, what they went through, it’s pretty remarkable.”

No. 2-seeded Middletown, the Blue Hen Conference Flight A champion, finished 7-1. In addition to the five turnovers, another culprit was 80 penalty yards. Sussex Central didn’t commit a penalty that was not declined until the final three minutes.

Middletown has appeared in 18 state championship football games, including the first in 1971, six as a Division II member after the small- and large-schools split in 1975 and 11 more since moving up to Division I in the fall of 2002. The Cavaliers have won seven state championships but have now dropped six straight title games, including last year’s against Hodgson, since winning their most recent championship in 2012.

Sussex Central celebrates the win against Middletown at the DIAA Division I football championship game at Dover High School in Dover, Del.

It was the first meeting between the schools since Middletown’s 26-22 win over Sussex Central in the 2007 state championship game at Delaware State’s Alumni Stadium. That was the first of Middletown’s three Division I titles.

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“I didn’t sleep much this week,” said Wells, whose concerns were both about Middletown’s ability and his own team’s health with COVID-19 cases increasing everywhere. “I was more miserable for this state championship than any of them.’’

Keeping in character, defense and running the football keyed Sussex Central.

Stratton gained 140 yards on 21 carries. Stephens covered 64 yards and scored two touchdowns out of his halfback spot. Gardner had 56 ground yards and his two completions netted 21 yards.

Sussex Central's Zimir Gardner (10) looks for an open receiver in the DIAA Division I football championship game at Dover High School in Dover, Del.

Middletown quarterback Chambers completed 20 of 32 passes for 267 yards, with Tart and Zachary Caldwell his favorite targets. But some of that came out of desperation. Sussex Central’s defense limited Middletown running backs Ben Martin and Michael Pearson to a combined 96 yards on 29 carries.

Stephens’ 3-yard run completed an 8-play, 63-yard opening drive aided by a Middletown face-mask infraction and featured Sussex Central pulling a counter-crisscross out of its Wing-T playbook.

Sussex Central's William Boyle (12) deflects a pass to Middletown's Mason Murphy (9) in the DIAA Division I football championship game at Dover High School in Dover, Del.

“That gave us a lot of confidence, a lot of boost, that we knew our offense could pound the ball,” Stratton said. “We kept pounding and pounding and the momentum was built up.’’

REPEAT DRAMA: Sussex Central, Smyrna go down to wire again

A fumbled punt by Sussex Central gave Middletown an opportunity but, on a first-and-goal at the 7, Chambers was hit by Jason Dempsey while rolling out. Josh Negron recovered the loose ball.

Another fumble thwarted Middletown at the Golden Knights’ 14 and it remained 7-0 until halftime.

Middletown demonstrated its determination as the second half began, moving 61 yards on 12 plays, including two fourth-down conversions, the second being Chambers’ 23-yard TD pass to Caldwell. Jack Hamm’s PAT made it 7-7.

But on Middletown’s next possession, Diego Rodriguez-Costa batted a Chambers pass that fluttered to Dennis for the interception, giving Sussex Central the ball at the Middletown 11.

Sussex Central's Phillip Stratton (18) runs the ball in the DIAA Division I football championship game against Middletown at Dover High School in Dover, Del.

“Coach told us all week ‘We’ve gotta play physical,’ ” Dennis said.

Stevens scored four plays later on a fourth-and-1 run from the 2.

RETURN TRIP: Middletown clips Hawks, returns to state final

Middletown then pulled within 14-13 on Chambers’ 25-yard scoring pass to Caldwell with 10:21 left. But the junior receiver high stepping into the end zone was an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. That pushed the extra-point try back 15 yards and the line-drive kick was blocked.

Sussex Central's Skyler McVicker (23) tackles Middletown's Michael Pearson (5) in the DIAA Division I football championship game at Dover High School in Dover, Del.

Saturday capped an unprecedented Delaware high school fall season in which players, coaches and families simply appreciated the opportunity to compete. COVID-19 concerns initially led the DIAA to move fall sports to March and April of 2021.

Changes to Delaware Division of Public Health protocols then led to the approval of a late-starting and shortened fall season beginning in late October but extending into December. Still, many schools had games called off because of coronavirus-related situations. Now winter sports are on hold until mid-January.

“In 31 years [of coaching] it was probably the most difficult preparation and organizing that I can even think of,” said Wells, whose staff started video meetings in March and organized virtual workouts for players before they could start using weight-lifting facilities. “ . . . We were fortunate. We only had one kid test positive all year but we had to quarantine seven or eight and guys missed games. To be here and win this is just unbelievable.”

Sussex Central 28, Middletown 19

Sussex Central 7 0 7 14 -- 28

Middletown 0 0 7 12 -- 19

SC -- Stephens 4 run (Amezcua Justiniani kick)

M -- Caldwell 23 pass from Chambers (Hamm kick)

SC -- Stephens 2 run (Amezcua Justiniani kick)   

 M -- Caldwell 25 pass from Chambers (kick failed)

SC -- Stratton 65 run (Amezcua Justiniani kick)

SC -- Gardner 41 run (Amezcua Justiniani kick) 

 M -- Tart 35 pass from Chambers (kick failed)  

Have an idea for a compelling local sports story or is there an issue that needs public scrutiny? Contact Kevin Tresolini at ktresolini@delawareonline.com and follow on Twitter @kevintresolini. Support local journalism by subscribing to delawareonline.com.