NEWARK — This moment had been such a long time coming for Middletown High’s football program.
Even when it happened — and the Cavaliers had finally added another state title to their collection — the moment seemed almost surreal.
“Seeing that clock hit zero,” said senior defensive tackle Kody Harris-Miller, “I almost lost it at that point.”
The bottom line was that No. 2 Middletown captured the first DIAA Class 3A football state championship with a heart-pounding 28-22 win over top-seeded Smyrna at Delaware Stadium on Saturday evening.
The Cavaliers (10-1) won the program’s eighth all-time state crown, and first since 2012, by snapping a six-game losing streak in state finals — including dropping the last two.
Trailing by only a point, Middletown scored the winning touchdown with just 4:01 left. On a fourth-and-goal from the three, senior quarterback Braden Davis rolled out to his right and — just before he got hit — threw the ball back to wide-open receiver Zachary Caldwell for the short touchdown.
But the Eagles (10-3), who had won their previous two title-game matchups with the Cavs, had two more chances with the ball.
One drive got as far as the Middletown 30 but ended on a fourth-down stop on a fourth-and-14. The second drive, which started on the Smyrna 29 with just 33 seconds left, reached the Cavs’ 27.
But there were only four seconds remaining when QB Cameron Edge was tackled inbounds at the end of an 18-yard scramble. The Eagles didn’t have any timeouts left.
While the clock stopped while the chains were moved, Smyrna’s players scrambled but couldn’t get off another snap before the final horn sounded.
Many of the Eagles fell to the turf in disbelief while Middletown’s players stormed onto the field to celebrate.
“It was an ‘edge-of-your-seat’ kind of game,” said Cavaliers’ coach Zach Blum. “Delaware saved on their bleachers’ rentals — they (the fans) only used the edges of them.”
Smyrna coach Mike Judy said Smyrna was trying to spike the ball on the final play. He blamed himself for using two of the Eagles’ timeouts on defense earlier in the half.
“That’s on me for putting us in that situation,” said Judy.
“Losing a game is just losing a game,” he added. “But when the journey ends with this particular chapter of our football family, it’s hard. We all know how much they gave.”
The Cavs’ game-winning drive covered 65 yards on 10 plays. Davis completed 4-of-5 for 47 yards on the four-minute march, including a 30-yard connection to Zy’Aire Tratt after eluding pressure.
On the game-winner to Caldwell, Davis said he knew he had to try to make something happen.
“It was just trying to find a little bit of time,” said Davis. “They kind of switched the outside backers and sent a little of a different blitz. I just had to wait for my matchup. I knew my guys would get open, I just had to sit in there and make that throw.
“I can’t even put it into words,” he said about winning the state title. “When I came here as a freshman, I used to hear stories all the time from seniors like, ‘Oh man, we got to the state championship but we lost it.’ It’s just great to come out here as a team in 2021, get this state championship and bring it back to Middletown.”
“He had the vision and the patience and the courage to stand in there and take the hit he knew he was going to take and deliver the football where it needed to go,” Blum said about Davis’ TD throw.
The South Carolina-bound Davis completed 15-of-25 passes for 199 yards in the contest. He also ran 14 yards for a touchdown.
Middletown also got one short TD each from running backs Michael Pearson and Joshua Roberson.
Smyrna countered with a pair of TD runs from senior Wayne Knight, who finished with 94 yards on 24 carries. His younger brother Yamir, added a 50-yard scoring burst in the second quarter.
Edge completed 14-of-21 passes for 222 yards including four catches for 122 yards from senior Devin DeMoe.
The contest went back-and-forth from the start.
The lead changed hands five times, with the Cavs going up 21-14 at halftime, but the Eagles retaking the lead on Wayne Knight’s 11-yard TD and two-point conversion in the third quarter.
“Our kids were tough, resilient and went through a lot of adversity,” said Judy. “I’m extremely, extremely proud of the way they handled themselves, even in defeat. They’re highly emotional right now obviously which we understand.
“When it’s all said and done, these guys can look back and be proud of themselves, proud of how far we came and the challenges we faced this year. I’m not angry, I’m disappointed for them but I’m still proud to my core.”
Of course the feeling is much different for the Cavaliers this time.
Along with pride, Middletown also knows what it feels like to win a state championship again. Blum said all the teams that came before this group share in this moment, too.
“What we talked to our guys about was really the fact that the rings and the jackets and anything that comes with this, you forget about,” he said. “But what you remember and what makes this so special is just the guys that you do it with.
“For us thinking about all the guys who have come before us ... there’s been a long list of guys who have played their tails off and been a part of this program that haven’t gotten to enjoy this on the field. We’re hoping like heck they got to enjoy it vicariously through us today.”