Golden Knights dug out of a 1-2 start

Sussex Central high senior lineman Caden Collins said he and his teammates never gave up on the hope of reaching the state finals. (Delaware State News file photo)

GEORGETOWN — Just three weeks into the season, Sussex Central High was barely still a state tournament contender.

It wasn’t that the Golden Knights had played poorly.

Indeed, Central’s two losses — to Caesar Rodney and Smyrna — had come by a total of just six points.

But two losses in a seven-game season are two losses. And with only four teams making the DIAA Division I state tourney field this fall, the Knights’ odds clearly weren’t very good.

Senior center Cade Collins, though, said he and his teammates never gave up hope on reaching the tournament.

“I think everybody, in our minds, had that thought we could be back to the state championship again,” he said. “That’s what we were telling each other in practice — if we keep pushing, we’re going to be in the state championship again.”

Central’s players were right, of course. On Saturday, the fourth-seeded Knights (6-2) will face No. 2 Middletown (7-0) for the Division I state championship at noon at Dover High.

Central coach John Wells thought the Golden Knights’ strength of schedule would help it make the state tournament. (Delaware State News file photo)

Central is trying to become just the third team since 2010 to capture the Division I state crown after losing twice in the regular season.

Going into the shortened season, Knights’ coach John Wells said he figured two losses would be the limit for qualifying for the state tournament.

He knew the fact that Central played an all-Division I slate would help its strength of schedule. In the end, the Knights won a tie-breaker with defending state champion Hodgson to claim the final at-large berth.

“At 1-2, they counted us for dead,” said Wells. “We had one foot in the grave, I guess.

“But these guys didn’t quit. Our kids don’t play that way. … I think that came internally (among the players). They just never say die. We didn’t have to tell them anything.”

Since falling to Smyrna, 28-24, on Nov. 6, Central has reeled off five straight victories.

While winning five must-win games in a row is a challenge in any season, doing it during a pandemic is even more so.

Wells said the Knights had one player test positive for COVID-19 and six to eight more have to quarantine due to contact tracing during the season.

Grades were also a major issue across the state this fall because of the issues associated with virtual and hybrid learning. Many teams lost players for academic reasons.

Wells said Central lost a total of 16 players across its freshman, JV and varsity programs. That included three players contributing on the varsity.

Yet here the Knights are, playing in the state championship game for the second time in the last three seasons.

“We knew those were some tough losses for us,” said senior linebacker Alton Dennis. “And we knew we could play way better.

“Coach kept telling us, just keep getting better and better and we’re going to make it. He told us, with five wins, we can make the playoffs.”

“This team has heart, we never give up — we never give up,” said senior halfback P.J. Stratton. “We just kept going and going. We knew what we were fighting for. We had to win every game.

“We never felt like it was too late. We had one goal. We just had to keep going and make it to the playoffs. Here we are at the state championship.”

Extra points

The last two two-loss teams to win the Division I state crown were Smyrna (2017) and Middletown (2011). … Central had seven players make first-team All-Henlopen North, including Collins, Dennis, Stratton, fullback Dion Stephens, kicker Juan Amezcua Justiani, defensive end Jacob Dempsey and defensive back Sean McGee. … Stephens and Stratton are both 1,000-yard rushers this season in just eight games. Stratton has run for 12 touchdowns and Stephens has 11. … Along with being streamed online by the NFHS Network, Saturday’s championship game can also be heard on radio station WDEL (1150-AM, 101.7-FM).