Running backs help carry Central to state crown

Sussex Central’s Dion Stephens drags Middletown defenders as he rushes for a first down in the fourth quarter during the Division l state football finals at Dover on Saturday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — Two years ago, Dion Stephens was unsure if he would be able to play football ever again.

A non-sports-related injury caused a hole in Stephens’ meniscus. The only way to repair it was surgery.

That’s when the doctor told Stephens there was a chance his career was over before it even really got started.

“I broke down,” Stephens said. “That was hell. I was depressed.”

Stephens never stopped working and gave his football career a storybook ending. He rushed for two touchdowns in Sussex Central’s 28-19 victory over Middletown in the DIAA Division I state football final on Saturday.

“I got so many emotions in me right now I can’t really talk,” an emotional Stephens said after the game. “It’s hitting me. Oh man.”

Sussex Central’s Wing-T offense relied heavily on the running of Stephens and fellow senior P.J. Stratton this year. Both rushed for more than 1,000 yards despite the shortened season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was no different Saturday with the two combining for 36 carries.

Stephens, the bruising fullback, rushed for 66 yards on 19 attempts and converted twice in short-yardage situations for touchdowns. Stratton, the speedier back of the duo, recorded 129 yards on 17 carries and broke free for a 60-yard score with 9:37 left to put the Golden Knights up 21-13.

The Golden Knights’ P.J. Stratton finds an open hole and rushes for a touchdown.

“I call them ‘Thunder and Lighting’ behind their backs, they don’t know that,” joked Sussex Central coach John Wells. “Dion is the power runner, and Stratton, he’s lightning.

“They’re amazing and they’ll be the first ones to tell you the o-line is amazing too,” Wells added. “We have an incredible o-line and Dion and P.J. reap the benefits.”

When Stephens was sidelined in 2018, it was Stratton who moved to fullback as a sophomore. Stratton played in the state finals that year as the Golden Knights downed Salesianum for their first title.

Stephens was forced to watch from the sidelines as he was about to begin his rehab.

This is the year he was waiting for, and it almost didn’t happen as the fall high school sports season was up in the air during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stephens spent his offseason working out, holding out hope that somehow the DIAA could come up with a plan to play.

It was a big sigh of relief when the seven-game shortened season was announced. Stephens knew he had the chance to show what his hard work was leading to.

“I had to play this year,” Stephens said. ”I kept praying, I kept working, I did my time last year and I came to play this year.”

When he first got back on the field, Stephens admitted he was a little too wary of his knee, fearing he could hurt it again.
“It’s all a mind game after you get the surgery,” Stephens said. “You don’t want to mess it up again.”

His perseverance came into play again when the Golden Knights found themselves 1-2 after three games.

Sussex Central knew it had to win out to even have a shot at the playoffs. The Golden Knights responded with four wins to close the regular season and back-to-back victories in the semifinals and finals for their second title in three years.

“It’s been a roller-coaster,” Stephens said. “Our playoffs started when we lost to Smyrna. After we lost to Smyrna, we had to win every single game.”

“It’s amazing,” Stratton said. “I’m so grateful, so thankful. Glory to the man up there, I’m just so thankful. This team put in the work. We were down and we came a long way and we got the state championship.”

Fittingly enough, it was Stephens who had one of the game-sealing plays, picking up a fumble recovery with less than two minutes left and the Golden Knights up 21-13.

Stephens said he hopes he can inspire other athletes who are recovering from surgery.

“Don’t give up, never give up,” Stephens said. “Just keep praying, working and doing your time. Because your time will come.”