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Sussex Central thwarts Smyrna on late TD in Division I semis

Kevin Tresolini
Delaware News Journal

SMYRNA - Their first match-up seemed to corner the market on late-game drama.

Sussex Central High reversed that outcome with an even more rousing finish in Friday’s postseason rematch with Smyrna.

Zimir Gardner floated a pass to the right corner of the end zone on a third-and-10 from the 15-yard line and Chase Boyle used his 6-foot-2 height and reach to haul it in for the touchdown.

There were 5.3 seconds left on the clock at Charles V. Williams Stadium and Sussex Central secured a 38-34 victory over Henlopen North rival and previously unbeaten Smyrna in the DIAA Division I Football Tournament semifinals.

Sussex Central's Skyler McVicker (23) celebrates his 46 yard touchdown reception in the first half of a DIAA Division I semifinal at Smyrna High School Friday, Dec. 11, 2020.

“We needed it,” Gardner said. “I knew I had to step up, make the play, give it to our playmakers and let them do what they do.”

No. 1-seeded Smyrna, which trailed by 14 in the first quarter and 12 early in the fourth, had taken its first lead when Aidan Sanchez lofted a 28-yard touchdown pass to Devin Smith with 1:54 left.

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Fourth-seeded Sussex Central then moved 76 yards on 13 plays, including a second-down pass-interference call that put the Golden Knights at the Smyrna 15, to score the winning touchdown.

“We ran that three times in a row and the third one just came up big,” Boyle said of his fade route on the winning TD. “He knows where I like it, he knows I can jump, so he put it right on me.”

Smyrna had won a wild regular-season matchup between the two at Sussex Central on Nov. 6, scoring twice in the final 5:10, including the winning TD with :42 left, to prevail 34-28.

Sussex Central (6-2) moves on to next Saturday’s final at an undetermined time and location. It’ll be against the winner of Saturday’s 7 p.m. bout between Middletown and St. Georges at Cavalier Stadium.

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“We didn’t want to get in a shootout with them,” said Sussex Central coach John Wells. “That wasn’t the game plan. It ended up being what happened.”

The host Eagles (6-1) and visiting Golden Knights each came into the 2020 playoffs anxious to experience state championship joy once more.

Smyrna won the first state football title in its history when it snared the Division I crown in 2015, then added the 2016 and 2017 championships as well.

Sussex Central's Dion Stephens sets up a touchdown with a long gain as Smyrna's Elijah Statham (34) and Gavin Porter pursue in the first half of a DIAA Division I semifinal at Smyrna High School Friday, Dec. 11, 2020.

Sussex Central then won its first state football championship by claiming the Division I trophy in 2018. Now a second is within reach.

“I got faith in my team to play with anybody,” Gardner said.

Sussex Central’s Wing-T attack was at its best early. Smyrna was stopped on downs on its first two possessions at its 49- and 40- yard lines. Running the football, Sussex Central scored on both with Dion Stephens carrying 3 and 18 yards.

But the Golden Knights’ biggest run came late in the second quarter when P.J. Stratton went 55 yards on third-and-19 from his 15. It led to Gardner’s 21-yard TD pass to Jeremiah Wilson as Sussex Central grabbed a 26-14 halftime lead.

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Stephens gained 109 yards on 22 carries and Stratton netted 110 on 13 runs.

Gardner was 7-for-13 for 161 yards and three touchdowns, the other to Skyler McVicker to make it 20-8 in the second quarter.

Sanchez completed 16 of 24 passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns, the other to Jermaine Earl, and his 60 yards led Smyrna rushers as the Eagles’ spread offense eventually took its toll.

Sanchez ran 14 yards for a touchdown with 6:30 left and threw to Earl for two points to get Smyrna within 32-28 with 6:30 left. A fourth-and-1 stop of Stratton by the Smyrna defense at midfield set the stage for the Eagles’ go-ahead touchdown.

Then Sussex Central delivered a decisive salvo of its own.

“I probably called more passes tonight than I have in any game all year, which is unusual. I didn’t come in thinking that,” Wells said. “We stepped up. We scored some points against a pretty good team, so we’ll take it, believe me.”

Sussex Central 38, Smyrna 34

Sussex Central 14 12 0 12 – 38

Smyrna 0 14 6 14 – 34

SC – Stephens 3 run (Amezcua-Justiniani kick)

SC – Stephens 18 run (Amezcua-Justiniani kick)

S – Earl 15 pass from Sanchez (W.Knight run)

SC – McVicker 46 pass from Gardner (run failed)

S – W.Knight 4 run (run failed)

SC – Wilson 21 pass from Gardner (run failed)

S – Galban 4 run (run failed)

SC – Stephens 3 run (pass failed)

S – Sanchez 14 run (Earl pass from Sanchez)

S – Smith 28 pass from Sanchez (run failed)

SC – Boyle 15 pass from Gardner (run failed)

Have an idea for a compelling local sports story or is there an issue that needs public scrutiny? Contact Kevin Tresolini at ktresolini@delawareonline.com and follow on Twitter @kevintresolini. Support local journalism by subscribing to delawareonline.com.