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Wilmington Friends’ 2016 football season started seconds after Justin Beneck’s fourth-down pass glanced off the fingertips of a receiver in the end zone on Nov. 27, 2015.

The Quakers had just lost to Howard 20-15 in the semifinals of the DIAA Division II playoffs. They watched the Wildcats defeat St. Georges for the state title the following week. And a core group of four juniors, already in their second full year as starters, vowed to do better next year.

“Right after that game, we decided we had some unfinished business for next year,” two-way lineman Matt Denney said. “We started working hard and getting ready for this year. That’s been our motto all year, unfinished business.”

Next year is here, and Friends has done better. The Quakers defeated St. Georges 20-6 in the semifinals last week to reach the Division II championship game against Woodbridge at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at Delaware Stadium.

It will be the final high school game for Denney, fullback-linebacker Andrew Jaworski, quarterback Beneck and fullback-linebacker Henry Gise. After coming up just short the past two years, they will finish their careers on Delaware’s biggest high school football stage.

“It’s been amazing, playing with these three guys and the other seniors. They don’t get enough credit,” Jaworski said. “We’ve been a group of guys who are always with each other, always working together, and we’re all good friends. It’s definitely something special.”

All four have been starting since their sophomore season, playing key roles on Friends teams that have gone 32-4 over the last three years. They’ve had an extra sense of urgency this year.

“The past two years have been great, but it’s not your senior season like this year is,” Beneck said. “We felt empty after the [2014 semifinal] loss to Laurel and after the loss to Howard. Especially after the loss to Howard, because it was so close.

“But this year is special because there’s no second chance. We’ve always thought we’d be able to go back, but this year is the final drive. It’s the last opportunity that we have, and it’s the goal we set for ourselves before the season.”

Woodbridge linebacker Brock Keeler breaks up a pass intended for Wilmington Friends' Henry Gise (23) during the teams' first meeting on Sept. 23. The rematch will be Saturday in the DIAA Division II championship game.

Woodbridge linebacker Brock Keeler breaks up a pass intended for Wilmington Friends’ Henry Gise (23) during the teams’ first meeting on Sept. 23. The rematch will be Saturday in the DIAA Division II championship game.

Friends coach Bob Tattersall has seen it all season from his co-captains.

“Our kids are excited about playing. They’ve had a vision,” Tattersall said. “We just missed last year, came up one play short at the end.”

The players have been motivated by their coach, too. Tattersall has won 303 games in 49 years at Friends, more than any other Delaware high school football coach. He guided the Quakers to their only state title in 1984, and has them back in the big game 32 years later.

“I don’t think T really wants anything ever to be about him,” Gise said. “But a lot of our guys know that what he has given to this team and this school has been very special. We know he deserves this more than anybody.”

Forming a bond

The four have worked out together frequently at Titus Sports Academy in Newark. They have practiced together every day. Beneck, Jaworski and Gise share the same backfield, and Beneck and Denney have been practice stretching partners since their freshman year.

“Football has brought us together,” Denney said. “We were friends before, but going through those hard games, winning and losing, really just brings you together even closer.”

Beneck’s experience has turned him into the prototypical coach on the field. Gise and Jaworski have that same experience, so you could say they have become assistant coaches on the field.

“I can go up to the line and have 100 percent confidence that these guys are going to do the right thing every play,” Beneck said. “I trust them, and the coaches trust me to change whatever I need to change at the line. Even these guys have input at the line. Sometimes, if they see something I don’t see right away, they tell me.”

Gise and Jaworski have the same responsibilities on defense, where they have developed what Gise calls “mental telepathy.” They have seen so many opposing plays, so many formations, that almost nothing can catch them off guard.

“As linebackers, it’s our job to point out what the formation is on both sides of the football and call out what our D-line is supposed to do,” Gise said. “But our D-line, I don’t even think they need us. We just like to talk. But it’s up to us to convey how everything is supposed to go.”

The 6-foot, 195-pound Jaworski is the go-to guy on short yardage. No one generates big statistics in the Quakers’ three-back offense, but they often face third-and-short or fourth-and-short.

Then everybody knows what’s coming: No. 46.

“Our line, they always give me a great push,” Jaworski said. “I know if I keep my legs moving, I can carry a couple of guys and keep the pile moving.”

The 5-11, 215-pound Denney is always in that pile.

“A couple of times in the end zone, he’s actually run me over,” Denney said. “He hits pretty hard, but I don’t mind.”

Tattersall has watched the four seniors sweat, toil and grow. To him, their impact stretches beyond their direct contributions.

“It’s rewarding to see what they’ve accomplished,” the coach said. “They’ve earned it. They’ve worked hard. They’ve helped the younger players improve, mentored them.”

One more game

They will go their separate ways after graduation. Denney would like to play NCAA Division III football and study business. Beneck is leaning toward studying business or management at the University of Delaware, but may decide to play football at a smaller school. Gise plans to study engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, while Jaworski has committed to play football and study pre-health at Colgate.

But there is one more game to play, and it won’t be easy. Woodbridge defeated Friends 35-7 on Sept. 23, the only loss for the 11-1 Quakers. The Blue Raiders are 12-0.

“It’s a huge challenge, definitely I would say the best D-line we’ve faced all year,” Denney said. “We know all their guys can make plays, and they’ve got a lot of size. So we’ve just got to stay low, keep up our blocks and hold them to the whistle.”

But only two teams will be on the big stage, and Friends will be one of them. Tattersall has made sure the Quakers know their history.

“Every year, we watch the 1984 film where they won the state championship,” Denney said. “We watch every game, all the highlights from their games and how they did it. T always talks to us about how they wanted it so bad and that’s what propelled them to do it.”

They would like to do it for Tattersall.

“It wouldn’t just be a dream come true to bring it to Friends for the first time in 32 years,” Gise said. “It would be awesome to finish out our senior year with a championship for T.”

And they would like to do it for themselves – and everybody at Friends.

“This would just put a great cap to it all, being able to say, ‘Remember our senior year? We finally did it,’” Beneck said. “That would be awesome, not only for us, but for these coaches who are so under-recognized.”

Contact Brad Myers at bmyers@delawareonline.com. Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ

DIAA Football Championships

Saturday, Delaware Stadium

Division I:

 No. 1 Middletown vs. No. 2 Smyrna, 1

Unified flag football:

 No. 4 Newark Charter vs. No. 2 McKean, 4

Division II:

No. 1 Woodbridge vs. No. 5 Wilmington Friends, 5:30

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