Eagles soar to second straight Division I crown

NEWARK — It wasn’t time to panic yet.

But Middletown High was still hanging around, cutting Smyrna’s lead to just six points in the third quarter and leaving the DIAA District I football state title still very much in doubt.

Smyrna coach Mike Judy, though, said a little adversity just comes with the territory.

“Things weren’t going great,” he said. “But that’s the beauty of these guys. They believe in each other and they trust us. When adversity stares you in the face, you’ve got to laugh at it and swing back.”

Two fourth-quarter Eagles’ touchdowns later, the celebration was on as second-seeded Smyrna finally finished off No. 1 Middletown, 36-14, to capture its second straight state crown before a sea of red and blue at Delaware Stadium on a chilly Saturday afternoon.

Smyrna (12-0) got a memorable 46-yard touchdown run from Will Knight with 7:51 remaining — his fourth of the game — and a tough 16-yard scoring burst from Leddie Brown with 4:40 on the clock to finish off the Harvest Bowl rival Cavaliers (11-1).

Knight left several would-be Middletown tacklers lying in his wake as he turned what looked like a short run into a back-breaking TD.

In stretching its winning streak to 22 games in a row, Smyrna became the first Henlopen Conference team to win back-to-back state crowns in Division I football.

The Eagles mobbed each other at midfield as their fans roared their approval when the contest ended.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” said Judy, the Dover High and Wesley College grad who’s in his third season as head coach. “This particular group, they were different from last year. But they have a lot of the same qualities.

“I think they just wanted to win this more than anything.”

“It’s indescribable,” said senior offensive tackle Jerren Carter. “It’s a legacy that we left today that’s never going to be forgotten. It’s just crazy.

“We didn’t look back at that group last year. We left a legacy of our own today. We knew we had to get it done for this community.”

Smyrna veered a little from its usual high-scoring script. The Eagles did finish with 483 yards but only 12 of those yards came through the air.

Instead, Smyrna rode the impressive talents of junior running backs Knight and Brown. Knight finished with 233 yards and four touchdowns on 34 carries while adding a pair of two-point conversions.

Brown had the other TD and a two-point run after totaling 198 yards on 25 carries.

In several stretches, Smyrna went to its ‘earthquake’ package — putting Knight and Brown in the backfield with no quarterback and simply letting the pair bulldoze their way for tough yards up the middle.

“We handled a lot of adversity so we’re used to it,” said Knight. “We always can fight through adversity. That’s why I feel so blessed for this team.”

“We wanted this for the seniors because they came from nothing and made it something,” said Brown.

Just as much as its running game, though, the Eagles’ victory was also built on the play of their defense.

Against a Middletown squad that averaged 42 points per game, Smyrna really allowed only one offensive touchdown.

The Cavs got their initial TD in the first quarter when Jeffrey Lockwood charged an Eagles’ onsides kick attempt and returned it 42 yards to the Smyrna one. Running Kedrick Whitehead (15 carries-65 yards, 2 TDs) scored on the next play and Justin Gotthold’s PAT kick gave Middletown its only lead at 7-6.

Smyrna was up 20-7 at halftime. Again, though, the Cavs answered, driving 75 yards with Whitehead leaping into the end zone from two yards out for a touchdown that made it 20-14 with 6:35 still left in the third quarter.

The Eagles’ defense, however, hung tough from there.

Middletown finished with a relatively modest 224 yards and 11 first downs. Smyrna also came up with four turnovers, including interceptions from Jacob Soroko and Caden Naylor.

Cavalier sophomore quarterback Drew Fry completed 11-of-26 passes for 131 yards with three turnovers.

“During film, we saw he had a lot of time in the pocket,” said Smyrna lineman Jamier Smith, who spent a lot of time in Middletown’s backfield. “It was basically get him out of the pocket, make him feel uncomfortable.”

“The way our defense was playing, we knew we had nothing to worry about,” said senior safety Jake Kaiser, who recovered a fumble. “We were locking up on the backside and the ‘D’ line was doing great. They were really helping us ‘D’ backs out.”

“I think we just played great team defense today,” said senior linebacker Josh Hutchinson.

Indeed, Smyrna’s made a big stand in the second quarter after Middletown had a first down at the six. But the Eagles stopped the Cavs on downs after posting a fourth-down sack.

Moments like that ended up being big when it was all said and done.

“I’m very proud,” said Middletown coach Mark DelPercio. “We battled to the end. I’ll lose with these kids than win with anybody else.

“I’ll take the blame offensively. They did a nice job defensively. But I think if we could punch it in there, there was the possibility of making some things happen there.”

Smyrna still has a long way to go before it can start thinking about the state’s all-time longest-running Division I football dynasty. Newark won five straight titles (1997-2001) at the height of its dominance.

But for a program that had never been to the Division I state tournament before last fall, two in a row sounded pretty good.

“Not a lot of people get to say that, so it feels great,” said Hutchinson. “It’s different knowing that this was it for me. I’m glad that my teammates — the juniors, sophomores, freshmen — they did it for me this time.”

“I can tell, this is what the seniors felt like (last year),” said Kaiser. “It hasn’t set in yet — it probably won’t set in for a while. But I know that, when it does, it’s going to be great.”

Extra points

Quarterback Nolan Henderson ended up completing 3-of-7 passes for 12 yards with an interception. He ran the ball nine times for 31 yards. … Whitehead had the interception for Middletown. … Cavs’ wide receiver Anthony DelPercio completed a 21-yard pass on a fake punt. … Smyrna had lost at least its last four meetings with Middletown before the Harvest Bowl rivalry took a break in 2012. … The Eagles and Cavs are slated to open the regular season next Sept. 8 in Middletown.

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