As Salesianum and Middletown kicked off Saturday night, all one needed was a pair of ears or eyes to know the state high school football championships had come back to the place they belonged.
The East stands at Delaware Stadium, inhabited by Sallies rooters for the Division I title game, were more than two-thirds full, which was hardly the case when the Blue Hens played home games this fall.
Same thing on the West side, which are the home stands for UD games. Middletown fans came clanging their traditional cowbells, a reminder to incoming Newark mayor Polly Sierer that among the first tasks of her new administration should be a law confining the noisemakers to the city’s few remaining farms and the necks of their bovines.
But, actually, they were a welcome addition to the chilly night’s warm atmosphere and homecoming spirit.
With the Division II final having taken place in the afternoon, it was the first time since 1974 any state football finals were played in Delaware Stadium. For the 30 years that followed, title games bounced around to various high school facilities, none of which could truly provide a setting such an occasion deserves.
Then Delaware State University stepped in in the mid-2000s. Alumni Stadium – the perfect size in the ideal location at the center of the state – became the annual site for the title games. That was a major improvement, and if the state title games stayed there, or go back there, that would be perfectly fine.
But Delaware Stadium, home of the Blue Hens and the annual Blue-Gold All-Star High School Game, is the state’s premier football facility, even with its prehistoric rest-room facilities – such as the infamous “wall” – and lack of creature comforts, such as seatbacks.
The cement edifice, whether one lives two hours away in Delmar or two minutes away in Brookside, is the state’s football epicenter. The state high school games were better for being there.
Plunk rivals Middletown and Salesianum, with their winning traditions, passionate followers and major-college recruits, between the hedges on Tubby Raymond Field and the Division I final had the makings of a classic. With the game on Thanksgiving weekend, when both schools have additional alums home visiting family, it boosted the size of crowd. Though the DIAA didn’t have an attendance figure, it appeared to well exceed 10,000.
A classic is exactly what Sallies and Middletown delivered in a gripping, tough-as-nails clash that the Sals won 23-7 because they made less mistakes, committed fewer penalties and executed in the key moments in a way Middletown could not.
The Cavaliers had possessions that reached the Sallies 10-, 16-, 10-, 31- and 10-yard lines and got them zero points. Even when Middletown had something go right, such as the 33-yard touchdown pass from Darius Wade to Dennis Berger with 1:13 left in the first half, something went wrong. On Sallies’ next play, Matthew Sgro whipped a 63-yard TD pass to Brian O’Neill.
“This is the big stage and we had our shot under the lights,” said Wade, the Boston College-bound senior after his 48th high school game, and fourth state final.
O’Neill, the tight end bound for Pittsburgh, called the mood on the field “crazy,” and attributed that to the setting.
“This is more of a flagship stadium,” he said. “It’s an iconic place for sure.”
High costs had been the primary roadblock in high school leaders not playing the state football finals at Delaware Stadium. DIAA chief Kevin Charles also found the lack of a warmer, more cooperative relationship between UD and DIAA leaders “troublesome,” he said.
The 2002 games had been scheduled there, but a snowstorm forced them to be moved. It wasn’t until Eric Ziady’s hiring as UD athletic director last fall that the possibility of the games returning to UD was rekindled.
Ziady wanted to see UD facilities used more, as both a benefit to the community but also for the economic value to UD. He and Charles agreed to play the state football finals there this year, at a significantly reduced price compared to past years.
“It’s fitting and right,” Charles said, “to hold the premier game in the premier facility.”
That was apparent Saturday, and hopefully will be in years to come.