WILMINGTON – It came down to the final seconds, fourth-and-goal from the 2.
Middletown handed the ball to Frankie Datillo, and into the pile he went. There was no official signal for a few seconds, and then the decision was made.
Salesianum stopped the Cavaliers inches short with three seconds left. Then the Sals plunged into the line a final time and started celebrating a thrilling, 27-21 victory in the semifinals of the DIAA Division I football playoffs on Friday night at Baynard Stadium.
“It was inches,” Sallies tailback-safety Colby Reeder said. “Zach Jarome came in big off the side and stuffed them up, and everybody piled on. You couldn’t tell if he was in or not until the pile cleared. They were a few inches short.”
So the top-seeded Sals (10-1) will await the winner of Saturday’s Smyrna at William Penn semifinal before going for their eighth state football championship the following Saturday at 1 p.m. at Delaware Stadium.
Salesianum held fourth-seeded Middletown (9-3) to 112 total yards, just 50 in the second half.
“I can’t say enough about them,” Sals coach Bill DiNardo said of his defense. “They’ve been very underrated, and they’ve done a great job for us all year long. I think tonight showed it. That was a storybook ending.”
The Sals needed the final stand after Reeder (28 carries, 133 yards) fumbled at his own 18 with 2:51 left. Xavia Green recovered for Middletown.
“It scared me,” Reeder said. “Sometimes they just get a lucky hit on the ball, and I think he caught it just right where it squirted out. I was feeling the pressure, and my defense came through for me to get the stop.”
The Sals’ defense also made a game-changing play midway through the final quarter. With the score tied at 21, defensive back Michael Drake stepped in front of a Cavaliers pass on third-and-9 from the Sals 35. The junior took it 73 yards the other way, cutting across the field from right to left before being tackled at the 2. Reeder scored on the next play to push Sallies ahead 27-21 with 6:06 to go.
“I was able to get a good look on the quarterback,” Drake said. “I jumped the route. Unfortunately I didn’t score, but Colby punched it in for us. I ran out of gas.”
The Sals popped a big run on their second play from scrimmage, as fullback Zach Jarome went 55 yards to the Cavaliers 12. Reeder bounced it outside for a 9-yard touchdown run two plays later, and Sallies led 7-0 just 1:44 into the game.
But it took Middletown only 14 seconds to answer. Datillo ran the ensuing kickoff up the middle, cut right at midfield and outraced the defense to tie it at 7.
The Cavaliers didn’t get a possession until midway through the first quarter, but they cashed in on it with a 12-play, 91-yard drive. A pass-interference penalty kept it going, and Datillo ripped off a 36-yard run. Kedrick Whitehead took a toss to the right and dove for the pylon, and Datillo added a two-point run to put Middletown up 15-7.
A 14-yard pass from Garrett Cannon to Hayden Semyak on third-and-12 kept Sallies’ final drive of the first half going. Reeder scored on a 3-yard toss sweep to the left, but misfortune struck on the two-point attempt. Middletown linebacker Peter Cox tackled Cannon, and the QB stayed on the ground.
Dr. Michael Axe, who was on the field immediately, reported that Cannon had suffered a fractured ankle. Sophomore Zach Gwynn, seeing his first extensive varsity action, stepped in at QB for the Sals in the second half.
“I just looked to my teammates, and they all believed in me,” Gwynn said. “Everybody came up to me, giving me pats, saying, ‘You’ve got this.’ I trusted them.”
Reeder went 33 yards on the Sals’ first play of the third quarter, capped the drive with a 2-yard run and added the two-point run to give Salesianum a 21-15 lead.
Isiah Mitchell surprised the Sals by picking up a rolling punt and returning it 12 yards, and a personal foul moved it to the Sallies 15. Datillo scored on the next play, but Reeder blocked the PAT (his sixth blocked kick of the season) to keep it tied at 21 going into the fourth quarter.
Both teams kept slugging it out, until the Sals held the Cavaliers inches short.
“This was such a game of momentum,” Middletown coach Mark DelPercio said. “It was swinging back and forth. In a game like this, you take advantage of momentum. I thought both teams did a nice job of that, and in the end, they made a play.”
Contact Brad Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ.