Sussex Central defeats Salesianum 33-7 for school’s first Division I state football title

Members of the Sussex Central football team pass the state championship trophy around after beating Salesianum Saturday. Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

NEWARK — When Shihiem Williams received the kickoff to open the second half, teammate Isaac Barnes knew it was going to be a touchdown.

“I’m on the sidelines, and I said, ‘if Shihiem Williams gets this ball he’s taking it to the house,’” said Barnes.

The Sussex Central High junior did exactly what his teammate had predicted, running the kickoff back for a 99-yard touchdown.

The special teams play sparked a 26-point second half as No. 3 Sussex Central earned its first Division I football state title in school history with a 33-7 victory over No. 5 Salesianum at the University of Delaware Saturday afternoon.

“It gave us momentum, we rocked with it and we kept going and won the game,” Williams said. “It was unbelievable. It was just like a dream, I couldn’t believe it. It was great blocking by my teammates, I saw a lane and I ran through for a touchdown.”

Sussex Central quarterback Isaac Barnes protects the ball on a keeper in the first half against Salesianum.

“It was mega-big,” said Central coach John Wells. “We talked about it at halftime, it was going to be a big drive. We thought we were going to need another score, you don’t know if that seven would hold up. That kickoff was mega-large.”

Sussex Central fell shy in its four previous state title appearances, including a 26-13 loss to Caesar Rodney High in its last finals appearance in 2008.

“First one in school history, we all worked together and did it for the community,” Williams said. “We started 0-1, but we just kept working and didn’t look back. State champs.”

“Everybody always underestimates us. It doesn’t matter, we’re state champions,” said Isaiah Barnes.

Isaiah reeled in five balls for 112 yards, which included a 59-yard touchdown strike from his brother Isaac to open the scoring in the first quarter.

Sussex Central fans celebrate in the stands after the Golden Knights scored in the first quarter.

The successful extra point try put Central ahead 7-0 at the 5:51 mark of the first quarter.

“I saw that their safety was trying to bite down and get the run, I made my move, got by the defense and I wasn’t getting caught after that,” Isaiah said of the touchdown.

Central’s defense rose to the occasion, just as it has all season long, forcing punts on each of Salesianum’s five first-half possessions.

“At the end of preseason we talked about how good our defensive players looked,” Wells said. “Then we had to find the right people and put them in the right spots. We thought our defense could be maybe top-five or better in the state, I think they’re the best defense in the state to be honest.”

Sallies running back Liam Mara gets “Knighted” for a loss in the second half Saturday.

The Sallies offense, led by junior quarterback Gabriele Puzzangara and junior halfback Andrew Watkins, managed just one first down and 44 total yards in the first half of play.

Watkins finished the game with just 41 rushing yards on 16 carries.

“We knew he’s a good back, but he’s only good against other teams. Our defense is different, we have the No. 1 defense in the state and we showed that today,” said Isaiah Barnes.

Ahead just 7-0 at the half, Williams’ kick return touchdown opened the flood gates, leading to a 20-point third quarter performance.
Central’s defense forced a turnover on downs after Salesianum’s punter fumbled the ball on the ensuing drive.

The offense took over at the 15-yard line and it took just three plays to capitalize on the mistake.

Sussex Central running back Zion Reed breaks through for a big gain thanks to a block by sophomore teammate Caden Collins.

Junior running back Kasim Lewis rumbled into the end zone for a three-yard touchdown and the successful extra point put Central ahead 21-0 with 8:53 left in the third.

Watkins scored the lone Sallies touchdown of the day a couple minutes later, capping an eight-play drive with a three-yard touchdown run at the 6:43 mark of the quarter.

The Golden Knight offense ate up nearly seven minutes of game clock on its next possession, driving 80 yards down the field for another score.

Barnes hit junior Javon Toppin from 15 yards out for his second touchdown toss of the day on the first play of the fourth quarter.

Junior running back TyJhir Sheppard-Parker capped the scoring for the Knights, breaking out for a 56-yard touchdown run with 9:18 to play.

The Golden Knights finished the game with 331 yards of total offense and 16 first downs, while limiting Salesianum to just 192 yards and nine first downs.

“Our defense, we’ve been doing this all year,” Williams said. “They came out and played Central defense today.”

Isaac Barnes tossed for 127 yards and two touchdowns on 5-of-6 passing.

Sheppard-Parker finished with 74 yards on 10 carries; senior running back Zion Reed ran for 36 yards on 10 carries.

After falling to Hodgson, 26-6, in the first week of the season, Sussex Central strung together 12 straight wins. Over that 12-week span, opponents averaged just 4.1 points per game.

“If you got a defense like that, you’re in every game,” said Wells, who earned his first state title in his 23rd year as head coach.
“When we were in eighth grade, Wells asked me and my brother if we were the ones,” Isaiah Barnes said. “He didn’t say anything else about it, he said ‘are you the ones?’ We simply said yes. The next thing he said was ‘state championship.’”

“He’s a great coach, a great mentor,” Isaac Barnes said. “Honestly, he’s taught me a lot of lessons about life, not even football. He’s taught me a lot about football, but life lessons. He’s a genuine guy, genuine coach. I wouldn’t want to win it for anybody else.”

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