4th-down stop in OT lifts Smyrna to first Division I football title

NEWARK — The moment will probably last forever in Smyrna High football legend.

Mighty Salesianum has the ball, less than a yard from the goal line, but it’s fourth down.

The Division I football state championship is on the line and everyone in Delaware Stadium knows that the Sals’ star, 6-foot-4, 228-pound running back, Colby Reeder, is going to get the ball.

Reeder takes the handoff but, in the next instant, Eagles’ linebacker Eli Hutchinson slices through a gap and drops the big Sallies’ back in his tracks at the four yard line.

It’s over, third-seeded Smyrna has stunned the top-seeded Sals, 32-26, in overtime to capture its first Division I football state championship in storybook fashion on Saturday afternoon.

With the red-clad portion of an estimated crowd of 12,000 roaring its approval on the sun-splashed afternoon, the Eagles’ players sprinted down the field in celebration, some throwing their helmets in the air.

It’s something they’ll never forget.

Senior defensive lineman Jeff Campbell lay on the field, not even sure if Smyrna had made the stop or not.

“I heard the crowd roaring and I didn’t know what happened,” he said. “Then the ref came over and said, ‘You might want to get up, you just won the state championship.’ I’ll never forget this. It only happens once in your lifetime.”

“I couldn’t believe it was over at that moment,” said second-year head coach Mike Judy. “I’m stunned, I really am.”

“It’s indescribable,” senior receiver Brandon Bishop said about watching the game-winning stop. “There isn’t a word to describe it in the world. I can’t even begin to explain how proud I am of these guys. It probably won’t sink in until 10 years from now — how amazing this was.”

In denying Sallies (10-2) the storied program’s eighth state title, Smyrna (12-1) became just the eighth Henlopen Conference team to capture a Division I football state crown — and only the second since 1990. The Eagles also avenged a memorable 76-56 loss to Sallies in the third game of the season.

But, while the rematch wasn’t nearly as high scoring, Saturday’s game was just as memorable in it own way.

In a contest it trailed 18-6 at halftime, Smyrna didn’t take its first lead until overtime. That’s when Eagles’ running back Will Knight scored on a fourth-and-goal from the one to give Smyrna its 32-26 advantage.

The Eagles, though, looked like they were in trouble just a moment earlier when they were stuck in a third-and-goal from the 20. But quarterback Nolan Henderson (10-for-17, 198 yards) fired a 19-yard pass to Bishop who went up to catch the ball just short of the goal line.

“I worked and worked and worked and worked for that moment,” said Bishop. “Everything I’ve ever done was for that moment. That’s why I knew I would catch that ball.”

Knight (27 carries-67 yards), Smyrna’s leading scorer all season, scored the Eagles’ last two touchdowns. His six-yard run with 10:12 remaining in regulation tied the contest at 26-26.

But Knight was stopped on the two-conversion try after his OT touchdown, leaving the door open for Sallies to win the title with a TD and an extra point.

On the Sals’ overtime possession, a five-yard run from Reeder, a one-yard by Zachary Jarome and then a three-yarder from Reeder got Sallies to the doorstep of the end zone.

But that’s where Hutchinson and the Eagles made their stand.

After running for seven touchdowns and almost 400 yards in the first meeting, Smyrna limited Reeder to just 104 yards on 34 carries with no TDs on Saturday. Reeder had only one gain over nine yards.

“That was our defensive staff, Dan Wagner, Josh Rutherford and the other guys coming together with a great plan and just sticking to it,” said Judy. “We felt that, if we could stop Reeder, we just didn’t think they had enough to beat us anywhere else.”

Sallies QB Zachary Gwynn was playing in place of senior starter Garrett Cannon, who broke his ankle in the Sals’ semifinal win over Middletown. Gwynn, a sophomore, made some big plays, throwing three TD passes and running for a two-point conversion.

But it was the Eagles’ vaunted big-play offense that got them back into the game.

Senior receiver Charlie Taylor, who scored three TDs, made two huge plays in the third quarter. First, he scored on an 86-yard pass from Henderson and then returned a kickoff 87 yards for a touchdown that kept Smyrna within striking distance.

Judy, whose team trailed 13-0 in the second quarter of last week’s 30-13 semifinal win over William Penn, said his players never panicked.

“We took them into the locker room (at halftime) and told them, you don’t have to do anything out of the ordinary,” said Judy. “We’ve been in this position before. You’ve just got to go out there and do your job. Look to the man to the right of you and the man to the left, and that’s the guy who’s going to help you win the game. They stuck together as a football family and succeeded.”

In Saturday’s celebration, it was easy to forget that Smyrna went just 2-8 two seasons ago. Considering the way the championship game unfolded, the Eagles were still trying to grasp what had just happened.

“Truthfully, I’m still shocked that we actually did it,” said Knight. “I think it will hit me tomorrow.”

“That was awesome — the atmosphere, the back-and-forthness of the game. … it was an amazing game to be a part of,” said Henderson. “We came from 2-8 to 5-5 and now state champions. It just hasn’t sunk in yet. It feels awesome.”

As the Eagles were presented with the state championship trophy on the field, the Smyrna crowd broke into a chant of ‘Judy, ‘Judy.’

The Dover High and Wesley College grad said he was humbled by that show of appreciation. But he also said he knew this particular group of Smyrna players had a chance to do something special.

“I’m not going to say I could see this coming,” said Judy. “But I definitely knew, with this team and the talent that we have and the hard work that they do, if the chips fell our way, this is the outcome.”

“I’m so glad I got to do it with this group of guys I grew up with and my community behind us,” said Bishop. “You can’t write a better ending to a story than this. You couldn’t draw this up. It’s a fairy-tale ending to everything. It’s beautiful.”

Extra points

Taylor’s kickoff return TD was the first time Smyrna had taken one all the way back this season. … Knight completed two passes for 73 yards, including a 69-yarder to Jared Gillis to set up Knight’s fourth-quarter TD run. … Sallies is now 2-2 vs. Henlopen teams in the state finals, with both losses coming in OT. Dover also beat the Sals in 1988 on a fourth-down stop. … PATs were tough for both teams, with each squad scoring just one two-point conversion apiece.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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