Central seniors want a second state crown

Sussex Central halfback P.J. Stratton follows the block of fellow senior Nathaniel Moore in a game earlier this season. Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

GEORGETOWN — Just thinking about that day still brings a smile to P.J. Stratton’s face.

The game may been played two years ago, but the joy it brought still lingers.

“Man, that day felt amazing,” said Stratton, the Sussex Central High halfback. “It felt like we accomplished a lot. And we worked hard for it.

“It was the best day of my life.”

The day was Dec. 1, 2018 and the Golden Knights’ accomplishment was upending Salesianum, 33-7, in Delaware Stadium to capture the school’s first DIAA Division I football state championship.

On Saturday at noon, fourth-seeded Central (6-2) will try to capture the program’s second state crown in three years when it faces No. 2 Middletown (7-0) in the Division I championship game at Dover High.

Certainly, the 11 seniors in 2018 were the leaders of that squad. But, despite being young, that sophomore class made contributions, too.

The players from that group are now seniors who want to have that championship feeling again.

Senior fullback Dion Stephens came from a knee injury early in his career to run for 1,000 yards this fall. Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

“I still think about it sometimes,” said senior center Caden Collins, who was the starting center in ‘18. “I’ll be sitting there thinking, ‘Wow, we really did that.’ It’s crazy.

“That would be fantastic,” he said about the possibility of winning a second state title. “I think it would be good for us seniors to end with that.”

Even without winning a championship on Saturday, Central’s senior class will leave behind an impressive legacy
The Knights own a combined record of 27-6 over the past three seasons. That includes a 5-1 mark in the state tourney, a pair of trips to the state finals and a state semifinal appearance.

Coach John Wells said there were even a few veteran players who didn’t come out for football this fall because of the pandemic. But there are still 17 seniors on this year’s roster.

“These seniors are a special group,” said Wells.

Among the seniors who were starters or key contributors in 2018 are Stratton, Collins, linebackers Alton Dennis and K’Tai Tilley and defensive back Sean McGee.

Dennis, who is now a two-way starter, has plenty of fond memories of that first championship season.

“It’s a great experience,” he said. “Hopefully we can bring another one back. The camaraderie of my team and just being able to compete at the highest level, it’s amazing.

“All the time, with my teammates, we’re always talking about it. I have my (championship) jacket with me every day.”

P.J. Stratton was one of several seniors who saw playing time in the Knights’ state championship season in ‘18. Delaware State News file photo

In ‘18, Stratton was splitting time at fullback in the Knights’ Wing-T offense. One of the reasons he was at the position was because Dion Stephens, now the starting fullback, was still recovering from a serious knee injury suffered the season before.

Stratton ran for 432 yards — averaging seven yards per carry — with five touchdowns as a sophomore. Over the last three seasons, he’s now piled up 2,437 yards on 309 carries with 24 rushing TDs.

And with Stratton and Stephens both at about 1,020 yards this fall, Wells said it’s the first time Central has had two 1,000-yard rushers through just eight games.

“He’s got the speed to play at the next level and he’s got the toughness,” Wells said about Stratton. “He’s hard as nails. He’s not a big kid — probably 160 (pounds) at best. But he can run power, he can run speed.

“That’s why we moved P.J. to halfback — because of his versatility.”

“He’s just a hard runner,” said Collins. “I know, when he gets the ball, he’s going to pound through the defense. He’s going to get yards no matter what — no matter if there’s a hole or if there’s a big hole.”

While big career stats are nice, what Stratton really wants is to win a second state championship for the Knights. He wants to have another great day to remember.

“It felt good — the energy, the crowd,” Stratton remembered about the first title game. “It felt like a whole new ballgame. Nervous? Yeah, a little bit. But we knew what we had to do at the end of the day.

“It feels the same,” he said about being back in the finals. “We have the same goal.”

Extra points

It will be Caesar Rodney (5-1) vs. Dover (5-1) in the DIAA Unified Flag Football Game today when the two teams meet on the Senators’ home field at 6 p.m. Dover beat CR, 22-14, in the season opener. … Given the late start to the season because of the pandemic, Dec. 19 is almost certainly the latest date a high school football game has been played in Delaware. … In the Division II state finals, top-seeded Archmere (8-0) faces No. 2 Howard (7-0) at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday at Dover. It’s the first time since 2015 that at least one Henlopen South team hasn’t been in the Division II title game.