Knights rally into state finals

Sussex Central’s QB Isaac Barnes hands off the ball during the Division 1 semifinal football matchup in Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Isaac Barnes knew Domonique Smith was open on the play.

But even Barnes, Sussex Central High’s quarterback, admitted the football he had just thrown seemed to hang in the air forever.

Finally, though, the 11-yard pass landed safely in the hands of receiver Domonique Smith for the last-second touchdown pass that sent the third-seeded Golden Knights to the Division I state championship game and broke Dover’s hearts.

The touchdown, with just 31.7 seconds left, capped Central’s rally from a 12-point halftime deficit and gave it a dramatic 21-20 victory over the No. 2 Senators in the Division I semifinals on a cold Friday night.

That final lead was the only advantage the Knights (10-1) held all night.

“It felt like it was up there for a long time,” Barnes admitted of his throw. “When it came down, you just see everything go crazy. You felt like you were in a dream.”

Central will make the program’s fourth appearance in the state finals but the first since 2008 when it plays in the title game next Saturday at 1 p.m. at Delaware Stadium. The Knights will face the winner of today’s 11 a.m. matchup between top-seeded Hodgson (10-0) and No. 5 Salesianum (9-2).

Hodgson handed Central its only loss of the season in September.

Dover’s Javon Peace rushes past Sussex Central’s Malik Copes gives chase during the Division 1 semifinal football matchup in Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

On Friday, the Knights earned their ticket to the finals by marching 68 yards on 13 plays. Twice they converted on fourth downs to keep the drive alive.

The winning pass came on a third-and-six with Smith running a crossing pattern. Dover safety Vonnie Peace, who had two interceptions, wasn’t the man covering Smith on the play but almost caught up to Smith before the ball reached him.

“Peace was supposed to go with the other guy,” said Central coach John Wells. “And he did. But he saw it at the last minute and turned around. He made up some serious ground. He almost made a great play.

“I saw the whole play unfold. I was like, ‘Man, if he gets there, that’s pretty amazing.’ But if worked out for us.”

“Isaac just threw a perfect pass,” said Smith. “I always know I’ve got to catch the ball no matter what.”

The Senators (9-2), whose only two losses came to Central, had time to run three plays after the Knights’ touchdown but only reached its only 37 before the contest ended on an incomplete pass.

Dover’s players could only drop to the turf as the Knights celebrated. The Senators were trying to reach their first state title game since 2001.

“A great game by both teams,” said Dover coach Rudy Simonetti. “It’s playoff football. You couldn’t ask for a better game than that. Football is a game of momentum and it just swung a little on us.

“We just couldn’t get the ball in second half and we couldn’t sustain drives. We just ran out of gas a little bit.”

Dover’s Raekwon Jackson rushes against Sussex Central during the Division 1 semifinal football matchup in Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

The Senators were shut out by Central, 21-0, in September. But, this time, they jumped out to a quick 8-0 lead on the third play of the night when Peace took a screen pass from QB Jordan Magee, cut back across the field and turned it into a 61-yard touchdown reception.

Peace then gave Dover a 14-6 lead in the second quarter when he intercepted a pass along the sidelines and ran it back 40 yards for his second TD.

Finally, Peace’s two-yard touchdown run with 24.7 seconds left capped a 52-yard Senators’ drive and put them ahead 20-8 at intermission.

The second half, however, was a different story.

The Knights held Dover without a first down over the last two quarters and limited the Senators to just 15 second-half yards.

The only question seemed to be whether Central had enough time to complete its comeback.

A promising drive by the Knights early in the third quarter ended with a Peace interception in the end zone. But Central came right back, pulling within 20-15 when Barnes scored on a one-yard sneak on the final play of the third quarter.

The Senators made one fourth-down stop on the Knights’ next drive — on a Peace pass breakup. But, when Central’s defense gave it the ball back with 4:13 remaining, that was just enough time for the Knights to pull out the victory.

Barnes, who completed 10-of-21 passing for 124 yards and two touchdowns, said Central’s players had to pick themselves back up at halftime.

“We had to talk to each other, teammate to teammate,” said Barnes. “‘Let’s pick it up, let’s turn it around. Let’s do what we’ve got to do to make the rest of this game.’”

“They were a little down,” said Wells. “But one of our coaches said a few and the mood completely changed. Being down by 12 was not insurmountable.

“We just said, let’s get back to the basics. Let’s block, let’s tackle better, let’s not turn the ball over and we’re going to do it together. They came out and they did it. It was a pretty great win for us.”

The Knights limited Peace to just 36 yards on 16 carries. Magee completed 6-of-13 passes for 126 yards while rushing for 30 yards on carries.

In the end, it just wasn’t enough for a Dover program making its first state tourney appearance since 2013.

“This is a special group of kids,” said Simonetti. “These seniors worked their tails off for three years. I can’t thank them enough for all the hard work and commitment they put into this program.”

“It stings right now and it’s going to sting for a while. But the one thing I hope I taught them is to tackle adversity and smack it in the mouth and to be all in. Hopefully they can turn this turn this into something bigger later on in their life.

“They rallied their community and restored some pride in the football program,” he added. “We were part of a final four game against the league champs. Unfortunately someone had to lose and it stinks it’s us. But we got a lot to be proud of. No one saw us coming this year and we went 9-1. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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