Sussex Central tops Middletown 28-19 for 2nd Division I football title in 3 years

Sussex Central players celebrate with their Division l state championship trophy after defeating Middletown on Saturday at Dover. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — This was a football season that almost didn’t get played.

And this was a Sussex Central High team that almost didn’t even make the state tournament.

But at the end of the game on Saturday afternoon, there were the fourth-seeded Golden Knights happily holding up the DIAA Division I state championship trophy after toppling No. 2 Middletown, 28-19, at Dover High.

Considered an unlikely tourney contender after losing two of its first three games, Central (7-2) instead reeled off six straight wins to capture the program’s second state crown in the last three years.

In a game that was tight throughout, the Knights took advantage of four Cavalier turnovers before taking control on a pair of long touchdown runs in the final 10 minutes.

The Golden Knights’ Central’s P.J. Stratton (18) celebrates his fourth quarter TD.

It was another tough ending for Middletown (7-1), which has won seven state titles in its proud history but has now lost six straight state title games since winning its last state championship in 2012.

Central coach John Wells said he worried more about this game than any of the previous five title games he was in — both because of Middletown’s talent but also because of the chance of a COVID-19 complication cropping up this week.

“In 31 years, it was probably the most difficult preparation and organizing that I can even think of,” Wells said about dealing with the coronavirus pandemic all year. “To be here and win this is just unbelievable. … It’s very satisfying for what we had to overcome and achieve.”

“It feels amazing,” said senior center Caden Collins. “Twice in three years, it’s pretty crazy.

“It was a weird season. We thought we weren’t going to play and then we were playing. It’s just an amazing feeling to end it like this — especially for us seniors. We’ve been working hard all four years of high school.”

Central never trailed after opening the game with an eight-play, 63-yard scoring drive. Senior fullback Dion Stephens (19 carries-66 yards, two TDs) capped the march with a four-yard touchdown run.

But Middletown tied the contest at 7-7 in the third quarter and looked like it might knot the score again at 14 when quarterback Colby Chambers hit receiver Zachary Caldwell for a 23-yard scoring pass on a screen with 10:21 left in the contest.

Middletown quarterback Colby Chambers throws under pressure from Sussex Central’s Josh Negron in the fourth quarter.

Caldwell (seven catches-104 yards), though, was called for a unsportsmanlike conduct penalty when he high-stepped down the sidelines.

Wells opted to take the penalty on the extra point rather than on the ensuing kickoff. The Cavs’ 35-yard PAT kick was blocked to keep the Knights in front, 14-13.

Wells credited assistant coach D.J. Long with convincing him to take the penalty on the PAT.

“I ran by him and slapped him on the hat and said, ‘Great call,’” said Wells.

Then, just two plays later, Central halfback P.J. Stratton (17 carries-129 yards) broke off a 60-yard touchdown run to give Central a more-comfortable 21-13 advantage with 9:37 on the clock.

“That was amazing,” said Collins. “We didn’t play too well in the first half. But, in the second half, we knew we had to do something because we knew they were going to come back and score. We had to put something together and drive down the field and score.”

Sussex Central’s William Boyle attempts to catch an interception against Middletown’s Mason Murphy in the fourth quarter.

On a day when Chambers completed 19-of-31 passes for 256 yards with three touchdowns, Middletown still had a chance.
Chambers, however, lost the ball when he was scrambling near midfield and Stephens recovered the fumble.

On the next play, quarterback Zimir Gardner faked a handoff, sprinted around left end and didn’t stop until he scored on a 41-yard run. That TD gave Central a 28-13 cushion with only 1:46 on the clock.

“I was just trying to get the first,” said Gardner. “I think they were keying (a running back) and it opened up. I saw green and I’m gone.”

But the Cavs didn’t go quietly. They went 65 yards on just three pass completions with Zy’Aire Tart (six catches-98 yards) making a nice leaping TD catch on a 35-yard pass from Chambers.

This time, though, the PAT kick hit the right upright to leave Middletown still trailing 28-19, with 1:24 on the clock.

Finally, the Knights’ John Abbott recovered an onsides kick and Central ran out the clock.

A few minutes later, the Knights were jumping up down, holding up the state championship trophy as they mobbed together underneath it.

Sussex Central players celebrate a late fourth quarter touchdown.

“It’s a great feeling,” said Gardner, who ran for 53 yards and threw for 21. “We started slow. We knew we had to pick it up coming out in the second half because Middletown is a great program, a great spread offense.”

Middletown out-gained Central, 348 yards to 278 and ran 83 offensive plays to the Knights’ 56. But that’s where the turnovers came in.

The Cavs looked like they might score in the second quarter when they reached the Central seven. But Central’s Jacob Dempsey knocked the ball loose from Chambers and teammate Josh Negron recovered it at the four.

Middletown’s David Turner reacts after losing to Sussex Central.

Then, in the third quarter, a Middletown pass was batted up in the air near the line of scrimmage. It landed in the hands of senior linebacker Alton Dennis, who returned the interception 15 yards to the Cavs’ 11.

Four plays later, Stephens scored on a fourth-and-short from the two.

“I was like, ‘Oh my, let it come down,’” Dennis said about seeing the ball on his interception. “I wish I could have scored.
“We always want to win the turnover battle, each and every game. That’s what we did today. We played tough.

“It’s incredible,” he said about winning the state title. “We’re the best in the state and we just proved it. I’m so glad. We got it done.”

Extra points

Central junior kicker Juan Amezcua Justiniani hit all four of his PAT kicks. … Sophomore Patrick Henry had the Knights’ other interception. … Central turned the ball over only once, fumbling on a punt return. … The Knights are now 2-4 in state finals while Middletown is 7-11.