More than a decade's worth of frustration was finally put to rest on Saturday when the Sussex Central Golden Knights finally hoisted the DIAA Division I Football state championship trophy after a dominating 33-7 win over Salesianum to win the program's first ever DIAA title.
After a low-scoring first half that saw Sussex Central hold a slim 7-0 lead, the momentum swung toward the Golden Knights at the start of the second half thanks to the special teams unit.
Shihiem Williams fielded the opening kickoff of the second half at the one yard line, followed great blocking from the kick return team and returned the kick 99 yards for a score to put the Golden Knights up 14-0 in a blink of an eye.
While the play itself didn’t win the title for the Golden Knights, it was defining moment of the game, one that couldn’t be understated by Head Coach John Wells after Central’s victory.
“Mega-big, we talked about it at halftime, this drive is a big drive, knowing our defense is pretty stout,” Wells said. “We felt we needed another score, that seven might not hold up, we didn’t know. That kickoff was mega-large.”
Many thought Saturday’s tilt between Sussex Central and Salesianum would be a defensive battle and those beliefs rang true with just a touchdown scored between the two teams after two quarters of football. However, after Williams’ kick return touchdown, Central would outscore Salesianum 19-7 the rest of the way.
Sussex Central jumped on the board early in the first half when quarterback Isaac Barnes found brother Isaiah Barnes on long 59-yard touchdown to give Central a 7-0 advantage they’d hold onto throughout the first half.
On Salesianum ensuing offensive position, desperate to get a drive going, opted to attempt a fake punt on fourth down in their own end which failed, giving Sussex Central great field position already up two scores.
The Golden Knights would make them pay a few plays later when Kasim Lewis capped off the drive with a three-yard touchdown on the ground, giving Central a 21-0 lead.
The Salesianum offense showed some life on their next drive, getting the passing game more involved which eventually led to a three-yard rushing score from Andrew Watkins to cut Sussex Central’s lead to 21-7 in the third quarter.
Still leading 21-7, Sussex Central went up three scores again in the opening seconds of the fourth quarter, finishing off a long drive with Isaac Barnes’ second touchdown pass of the day, this time to Javon Toppin on a 14-yard score.
With just over five minutes to go in the fourth, TyJhir Sheppard-Parker put things away for the Golden Knights bursting free for a 56-yard touchdown, sealing the championship for Sussex Central.
Controlling the field position and wearing down Salesianum was one of the keys to victory Central focused on while preparing all week.
“We knew the hungry dog was going to eat, our defense was hungrier the whole game, are offense was hungrier the whole game,” Isaiah Barnes said. “We don’t give up, we don’t stop. It’s all gas, no breaks.
“That’s been our mindset all week, coming into this game once we get the foot on the throat, don’t let up.”
“We’re gonna punch you in the mouth first and start running the football so it kind of takes you away from what you want to do,” Wells said.
Isaac Barnes only threw six passes, but completed five of them for over a 100 yards and two scores, including one to brother Isaiah. The two also played a role on a defense that held Sallies to just one score on the day.
“Just watch them play, they’re so competitive,” Wells said. “Watch them play, watch the passion they play with. You see them play and you know they love the game and love to compete.”
While the championship is a first for the players who took the field Saturday, it’s shared among many alumni and former players, many of whom came out to support the Golden Knights at Delaware Stadium.
“See those guys in the front row,” Wells said. “They played for me, been in finals games, lost or came up short for whatever reason - they came here to support us and these guys didn’t come out to play themselves, we played for a whole community today.”
The sense of tradition isn’t hard to see among this Sussex Central team and the support was not lost on the players who took the field.
“It means everything,” Isaac Barnes said. “If you came through Central, you’re Central for life.”