Sussex Central may be in the Group 1A state championship game, but that reality didn’t seem likely in August.
Back then, it looked as if the Tigers didn’t have the numbers to sustain a solid regular season, let alone a playoff run.
Four months later, Sussex is 13-0 and, after impressive playoff wins over Luray, Altavista and George Wythe-Wytheville, is ready for the Group 1A state final against Riverheads (12-1) at noon Saturday at Salem City Stadium.
When the Tigers started the season, veteran head coach Curtis Jefferson had just 19 players on the field. The numbers increased over the next few weeks, and so did the team’s intensity.
“We still have a small squad (35 for the final), but they play hard and that’s all I can ask for,” Jefferson said. “They’re a scrappy bunch. They just got better and better.”
How far have the Tigers come? They turned in sparkling performances in their last two playoff games, beating two of the top programs in the state — Altavista and George Wythe.
First, Sussex toppled the Colonels 28-14 in the 1A East semifinals as quarterback Malik Delk scored two touchdowns and running back Mack Prosise rushed for 114 yards and a touchdown.
In the state semifinals, the Tigers outplayed the bigger, deeper Maroons, earning an 8-7 victory and a trip to Salem to face the Gladiators. Delk scored Sussex’s only touchdown on a 41-yard run with just over eight minutes left in the third quarter, then ran for the two-point conversion.
“They are two disciplined, well-coached programs that I think are two of the best in the state,” Jefferson said of Altavista and George Wythe. “We just played hard football, they played hard football, and it came down to a matter of this and a matter of that.”
It also came down to a matter of defense for the Tigers, who have given up an average of 10.1 points per game this season. They stifled a Maroon offense that averaged 48 points per game in the regular season, and put up 140 points in its first three postseason games.
“They’ve got a good defense,” Riverheads coach Robert Casto said. “Any defense that can hold George Wythe to seven points is a good one. They’re a lot like we are. They’re not very big, but they get to the ball. They’re quick and their linebackers are good and they have two good defensive ends.”
Ask Jefferson about Riverheads’ defense, which gives up just 11.8 points per game, and you’ll hear pretty much the same thing.
“People have been talking about my defense, but Riverheads probably has one of the best defenses in the state,” he said. “They fly to the football and they mean business when they get there. I couldn’t find any weaknesses looking at film of them. The players know their jobs and they do their jobs.”
And just like Sussex will have to find a way to slow down the Gladiators’ high-octane offense, which averages 45.6 points per game, Riverheads will have to do the same to the Tigers, led by Delk and running back Trevon Hatch, the Region 1A East Offensive Player of the Year, .
“The quarterback (Delk) is a dangerous kid,” Casto said. “He runs really well. The Hatch kid is a good football player, but they have several players who when they touch the ball can take it to the house.”
Delk, a 6-foot-1, 170-pound senior who recently was named the first-team All-Region 1A East quarterback, is a dual-threat player. His 16-carry, 124-yard effort was the difference against Wythe.
“Last week, we just kept calling his number and asked him to make a play for us,” Jefferson said. “He did it against a very impressive football team.”
Hatch started his season with a three-TD effort against Trinity Episcopal and has played in a quiet, efficient manner.
“He’s just a quiet kid who comes every week to play,” Jefferson said. “He goes out there and does his job. I would say he’s been my most consistent player this year.”
Prosise is another big part of the Tigers’ rushing attack, while wide receivers Pha’shard Harris (Jr., 6-4, 194) and Tyrese Rose (Sr., 5-10, 145) are Sussex’s deep threats.
The Tigers, who won state titles in 1991 and 2003, and the Gladiators, who are going for their fourth state title since 2000, have met once before — in the 2006 Group A, Division 1 semifinals. Riverheads won that matchup 24-14, and even though they’ve met once on the field, Jefferson is well acquainted with Casto and his program.
“[Riverheads] is one of the top-notch programs in the state, coached by one of the best coaches in the state,” he said. “When I was a young pup first getting into the game, he gave me help when I needed it, so I have nothing but respect for Coach Casto. He runs a Class-A program. There’s nothing but positives when it comes to him.”