NEWARK – As the seconds ticked away and Salesianum closed in on the 2023 DIAA Class 3A football championship, the players made certain to get a few things out of the way.
With a minute or so to go, a few grabbed a five-gallon drink cooler and attempted to empty its contents on the head of coach Gene Delle Donne, but the former Salesianum athlete showed he still has some moves and escaped mostly unscathed. Once the final whistle blew, the players shook the hands of the Cape Henlopen players and ran over to the grandstand in front of the large Sallies student section, celebrating with their schoolmates. Then they lingered on the turf at Delaware Stadium, donning state championship t-shirts, taking photographs and meeting with the local media.
The top-seeded Sals got back to the top of Delaware’s high school football hierarchy with a 45-17 win over No. 6 Cape on Dec. 1 at Delaware Stadium on a night that began in a light rain. Salesianum used a dominant second half, outscoring the Vikings, 35-7, for the program’s first championship since 2013 and eighth overall.
The game got off to an inauspicious start for the Sals, who fumbled the ball away on their first offensive play from scrimmage. The Vikings took over at the Salesianum 44, and on second down and 18, Cape standout running back Maurki James carried 35 yards to the Sals’ 17. Four plays later, James caught a 4-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jameson Tingle for a 7-0 Cape lead.
The Sals began a possession at the 50 with two seconds left in the first, and the offense went to work. Andrew Ransome kept the drive alive with a 6-yard gain on fourth and one, and Sals quarterback Brady McBride was able to complete passes on two third downs, both to Lukas Ryan, to keep the sticks moving. He tied the game with 8:35 left in the half on a 9-yard pass to Bill Neumann in the corner of the end zone, with Neumann just getting a foot inbounds on the catch.
The Vikings took advantage of another Sals fumble, turning that into a field goal and a 10-7 lead late in the second, but Salesianum answered with a quick march down the field before Colin Maradik tied the game on a 24-yard field goal with 11 seconds on the clock.
McBride said the Sals just needed to keep playing their game and remain confident.
“You believe in what you do, and no matter what the score is, we kept playing our game,” he said.
That worked just fine in the second half. The Sals opened with the ball, and it didn’t take long for them to take complete control. They began at their own 28, but after two runs, they faced a third and 11. McBride lofted a pass over the middle to Ben Anton, who covered the rest of the field on the ground for a 73-yard touchdown 85 seconds into the third quarter.
Delle Donne was not surprised by Cape. The Vikings earned a trip to the final with wins at No. 3 Dover and No. 2 Sussex Central.
“Very scrappy, especially early,” he said. “Their plan to contain our run game was working. I thought that’s why we had to take shots, quite honestly, as a play caller, we had to take shots. Brady did well there, which kind of loosened up the defense for (running back) B.J. (Alleyne).”
Cape began their next drive at their own 12, and after losing three yards on a fumble on first down, Tingle was sacked by Jacob Urban and Andrew Semmel at the 2. Tingle was pressured on the next play, and his pass was intercepted at the 8 by L.J. Smith, who scored the Sals’ second touchdown in 1:43 to make it 24-10.
Delle Donne said the minutes surrounding halftime are a key for the Sals.
“We talk about the middle eight, and that’s the last four minutes of the second quarter, and the first four minutes of the third quarter, and we focus on trying to win that, and I thought we did. We’ve done it all year. And that was the big difference in the game,” he said.
Smith’s pick-six was set up by a smothering defense that was on point all night. Sallies had 16 tackles for loss, including five sacks. Smith said his interception and return did not happen in a vacuum.
“My defensive line, my cornerbacks, my safeties. The safeties guarding the receivers well, and the defensive line causing so much pressure,” Smith said. “We were in a base defense. I was just doing my responsibility. I saw the ball and got it, ran it in. But I couldn’t have done it without my other defensive players.”
Salesianum put seven more points between themselves and the Vikings after forcing a three and out after Smith’s touchdown. Starting at the Cape 42, Alleyne, who was mostly held in check in the first half, bulled his way for 10 yards. He was stopped for no gain on first down, but after a penalty on the Sals, Alleyne covered the 37 yards on two plays, including a 24-yard touchdown with five minutes remaining in the quarter.
Alleyne scored on a direct snap on the first play of the fourth from two yards out as the lead grew to 28. Cape’s Lucas Stevenson caught a 3-yard touchdown pass with 3:49 to go, but Alleyne answered on the Sals’ next offensive play, rushing 57 yards up the middle for the game’s final score.
“We had faith in each other, knowing that we’re a second-half team, and just trusting the game plan, no matter what happens,” Alleyne said.
McBride finished with six completions on seven attempts for 131 yards and two touchdowns. Alleyne had 171 rushing on 20 carries and scored three times. Defensively, Mitchell Cummings led the way with 11 tackles, and Urban had 11. Semmel had nine tackles, four of those behind the line of scrimmage. The Sals finished the season 12-1.
For the Vikings, Tingle was seven of 14 passing for 76 yards and two scores. James was held to 89 yards on 23 carries. Jayden Messick had eight tackles, while Jukai Payne had seven. Cape, in the final for the first time since 1984, completed the season 9-4.
The win capped a dominant fall sports season for Salesianum. The Sals also won cross country and soccer, something they had done several times previously, including in 2013.
“We went three for three, and it just feels great,” Smith said. “It’s awesome, an awesome feeling.”