For the sixth time in seven years, the Middletown Cavaliers will play in the DIAA Division I Football State Championship Game.
After going 10-0 and earning the No. 1 overall seed in the DIAA Division I Football State Tournament, the Cavaliers defeated No. 4 Salesianum in the quarterfinals last week after a first-round bye.
Now, they move onto the Division I State Championship where they’ll take on defending champion Smyrna on Saturday at University of Delaware.
Completing a 10-0 season
The Cavaliers dominated the majority of their opponents, winning all 10 games by double-digits this season.
After winning their first four games by a combined score of 181-6, the Cavaliers played a tight contest against Salesianum, winning 42-24 after pulling away in the second half.
Middletown would go on to win their next four games over Mt. Pleasant, Appoquinimink and Newark, scoring 50 or more points in two of those games before winning their finale against a tough Concord squad, 20-9.
The Cavaliers’ offense scored 40 or more points in eight games this season, topping the 50-point mark twice. Middletown scores less than 30 points twice during the season, but outscored their two opponents in those games 45-9.
While the Cavaliers’ offense was one of the top units in the state, it’s their state-leading defense, led by coordinator Zach Blum, that put fear in the hearts of their opponents.
Middletown allowed a state-low 79 points, keeping all but one opponent during the year to less than 20 points. They posted four shutouts and kept two opponents to just one score.
Downing rival Sallies in Quarterfinals
The No. 1 Cavaliers fought through costly penalties and turnovers, while the Middletown defense held strong helping them knock off No. 4 Salesianum 25-7 on Friday night.
Middletown opened the scoring late in the opening quarter when quarterback Drew Fry scrambled to the endzone for an 11-yard score to give the Cavaliers a 7-0.
With time winding down in the half, Salesianum tied things up at 7-7 thanks to a 10-yard touchdown run by Josh Patrick, who carried the load in the backfield for Sallies the majority of the night.
With time winding down in the opening half, the Cavaliers were driving but needed a fourth-down conversion from Fry to Jalen Whitehead to keep it going. A few plays later, Fry left the pocket and found an open Nick Johnston in the endzone to put Middletown up 13-7 after a blocked extra point with just 4.9 seconds left in the half.
Middletown’s offense struck again early in the third, aided perhaps by a questionable call of a completed pass for the Cavaliers. Later in the drive, Fry would threw his second touchdown of the game, this one to Anthony DelPercio from 10-yards out to put Middletown up 19-7 with just under nine minutes to go in the third quarter.
The two teams remained scoreless the rest of the third and throughout the first-half of the fourth until Middletown sealed the victory with another score. After a forced fumble by the Middletown defense, the offense went to work. Kedrick Whitehead capped off the drive with a four-yard touchdown on the ground, giving the Cavaliers a 25-7 lead with just over six minutes to go.
“I was very pleased with our intensity and mental toughness against Salesianum,” said Middletown Head Coach Mark DelPercio. “Our defense was incredible and most of that credit goes to the job that [defensive coordinator] Zach Blum has done with them.”
Harvest Bowl reborn on the big stage
For years, Middletown and Smyrna met in the annual “Harvest Bowl” as far back as the 60s when the two teams played in the Diamond State Conference.
Years later, the rivalry game was reborn in the 80s before the population boom in Middletown had them move up to Division I.
The annual game had another rebirth in the early 2000s, but the two teams haven’t met in the regular season or otherwise since 2012.
Middletown widely dominated the game, winning 13 of 17 matchups from 1985-2001 and 2009-2012.
The last time the two teams met in the regular season, the Cavaliers won 47-19, their 12th-straight victory over Smyrna in the Harvest Bowl game.
Things have changed drastically in four years, as both teams enter the state championship game undefeated.
The once heated rivalry will begin yet another life this weekend when the two teams matchup with the state’s ultimate prize up for grabs.
Slowing down the Eagles
Smyrna entered the year not only as defending champs, but as a favorite to do it again.
The Eagles opened up the season dominating their opponents, proving they were indeed a state title contender yet again. Smyrna won their first six games by double-digits scores, tallying 50 or more points in each victory.
In their seventh game of the season, dealing with injuries and some extreme weather down at Sussex Central, the Eagles proved they could win a close game on the road, coming from behind late to beat the Golden Knights 22-14 to keep their perfect season alive.
Over their remaining three regular season contests, the Eagles’ dominance returned. In matchups against Caesar Rodney, Cape Henlopen and Polytech, Smyrna won each by double-digits, once again topping 50 or more points in every one.
The next task at hand for Smyrna was their playoff opener last Saturday against a very tough No. 3 seeded William Penn team in a rematch of last year’s semifinal that saw the Eagles comeback in the second half to win.
The Colonials provided a stiff challenge on paper, especially since Smyrna was coming off a bye and had not played against a team with a winning record since week nine of the regular season.
Once game time came, however, the paper matchup didn’t matter as the Eagles cruised to a 48-0 win to advance to the state championship game.
The Eagles’ trio of quarterback Nolan Henderson and dual-threat backs Leddie Brown and reigning player of the year Will Knight had the Colonials running in circles Saturday night.
Brown finished the game with three touchdowns on the ground, while Knight rushed for one score and caught one of Henderson’s two touchdown passes in the win.
Even with the state’s top-ranked defense, the Cavaliers know they must be prepared Saturday for the Eagles’ high octane offense.
“We have to be smart and make sure that our players are in the right position and tackle,” said DelPercio. “They are exceptionally talented in all skill positions and big.”
Though, Smyrna is well aware of the challenge ahead against stingy Cavaliers defense.
“Statistically, Middletown is the best defense in Division I, they have great athletes and are well coached,” said Smyrna Head Coach Mike Judy. “I believe the keys are to make sure you don’t turn the ball over to them and make them as uncomfortable as possible on every down - keep them guessing and hopefully slow them down a bit.”
DelPercio also spoke about the Eagles’ improving defense, which really shined against William Penn forcing some crucial turnovers early last Saturday.
“They are big upfront, move fast to the ball and defend the pass well,” DelPercio said. “They are playing their best defense of the year right now and look very good.”
Come Saturday, all the talk and conjecture throughout the year will be over and the game will be decided on the field. For Smyrna, it’s an opportunity to go down in the history books as back-to-back champions, while Middletown looks to get back to the top spot in the state after coming up short the last few years.