SALEM – Grab your thesaurus. Pick your adjective.
Any one of them will do when you talk about Riverheads’ performance Saturday in the Group 1A state final against Sussex Central.
After coming up one point short last year, the Gladiators left no doubt this year, crushing the Tigers 49-6 to win their fourth state title.
Senior running back Harrison Schaefer provided the impressive for Riverheads (13-1), rushing for 212 yards and four touchdowns. He also threw for another on a fourth-quarter option pass.
Dominant? Crushing? That’s Riverheads’ defense, which held Sussex (13-1) to 137 total yards, 65 of them coming on the Tigers’ first series that produced their only touchdown.
“Spectacular” pretty much describes the total effort by the Red Pride, who won their previous state titles in 2000, 2006 and 2010 under head coach Robert Casto, who had the best seat in the house Saturday.
“All the credit goes to the kids,” Casto said. “They’re the ones out here playing and the coaches just sit back and watch them, like spectators. The kids did their assignments, did their technique and played extremely well.”
You can start with Schaefer, who scored on runs of 2, 25, 5 and 75 yards. His 11-yard option pass to Ridge Stokes for a fourth-quarter touchdown was the icing on the cake and erase the disappointment from last year.
“We had an opportunity to win the state championship last year and couldn’t do it,” said Schaefer, who finishes the season with 38 rushing touchdowns. “So, we got better. We went into the weight room, worked hard, got bigger and faster and got another opportunity and took care of business this year. Good way to go out.”
The defense did its part by holding the Tigers’ option attack to 72 total yards after the first series.
“We kind of figured it out quick,” said Stokes, a senior linebacker. “We went over it all week in practice and it was nothing new. Covington runs the same offense, so we’ve seen it before and that helped us pick it up better.”
Stokes was the dominant player on the field for the Gladiators. He had two tackles, five assists and a sack, and helped put the brakes on Sussex’s speedy offense, which came into the game averaging over 33 points per game.
“Ridge Stokes was the best player on the field. There is no doubt about it,” Casto said. “He has been all year. Any college that doesn’t look at him needs their marbles checked.”
Hostetler also went out with a superb afternoon on both sides of the ball. The senior rushed for 114 yards and had five tackles on defense, and his 68-yard touchdown run in the second quarter took the air out of the Tigers’ balloon.
Sussex drew first blood on its opening series, going up 6-0 on a 15-yard pass from Malik Delk to Tyrese Rose. The score was set up when punter Trevion Ellis bobbled the snap, then ran 15 yards for a first down at the Gladiators 31.
But Riverheads struck back quickly with good field position at midfield. Schaefer’s first carry on the first play went for 35 yards, and he capped the drive with a 2-yard run. Rinaldo Martina kicked the first of seven extra points for a 7-6 lead that never evaporated.
It was the first of four red-zone scores made possible by an offensive line that helped plow the way for 382 rushing yards and a 7.6 yards-per-carry average.
“I couldn’t be prouder of them,” Gladiators quarterback Chase Armstrong said. “They’ve done it all year and they did it again today.”
The Gladiators stopped Sussex on downs at their 31 early in the second quarter, then drove 69 yards in 12 plays to add to their lead. Schaefer got his second TD on a 27-yard run up the right sideline.
Riverheads took over at its 24 after forcing Sussex to punt. Three plays later, Hostetler padded the lead to 21-6 with his 68-yard run.
Another three-and-out set the Gladiators up for another scoring drive at the end of the first half. Schaefer capped the 65-yard drive with a leap over the Sussex defense for a 5-yard TD run and a 28-6 halftime lead.
The Red Pride kept their foot on the gas in the second half, getting Schaefer’s 75-yard run in the third quarter, then his 11-yard pass to Stokes earlier in the fourth quarter for a 42-6 lead. Hostetler capped the scoring with a 16-yard TD run with 7:05 left.
“We kind of kept it pumping,” Stokes said. “We wanted to get up and stay up, and not have a repeat of last year. We just worked harder. We knew what it was like to lose at states and we didn’t want it to happen again.”
After that, it was just a matter of watching the clock wind down on a championship season.
Was this one sweeter than the others for Casto?
“I’m not much about the past,” Casto said. “I’m pleased for the team that have come, but this is our team now, and there’s more coming.
“They’re all important, but this is the best one I’ve had this week.”
RIVERHEADS 7 21 7 14 — 49
SUSSEX CENTRAL 6 0 0 0 — 6
S – Rose, 15 pass from M. Delk (pass failed)
R – Schaefer 2 run (Martina kick)
R – Schaefer 27 run (Martina kick)
R – Hostetler 68 run (Martina kick)
R – Schaefer 5 run (Martina kick)
R – Schaefer 75 run (Martina kick)
R – Stokes, 11 pass from Schaefer (Martina kick)
R – Hostetler 16 run (Martina kick)