Salesianum will play for its first football state championship since 2013 and its eighth overall on Saturday when they meet Sussex Central for the Division I title at Delaware Stadium in Newark. Kickoff is at 1 p.m.
The Sals, who entered the six-team tournament as the fifth seed, finished the regular season with an 8-2 record. They avenged a regular-season defeat with a 49-25 win at No. 4 Middletown on Nov. 16, then knocked off the top seed, Hodgson, last Saturday to earn their first berth in the title game since an overtime loss in 2015.
After the 2017 season ended without a postseason berth, the Sals entered this campaign with uncertain expectations. The program graduated nearly all of its starters, and coach Bill DiNardo was introducing a new starting quarterback, Gabe Puzzangara, and two new starting ball carriers, Andrew Watkins and Jesse Wheatley. Much of the offensive and defensive lines also featured new faces.
Puzzangara missed the first few games with an injury, but the Sals opened with four wins. Watkins, a junior transfer from St. Mark’s, thrived in DiNardo’s ground-based offense, while the defense opened with two consecutive shutouts.
The team lost two straight in the middle of the season, including the 34-7 affair at Middletown, but Sallies rebounded by taking their last four.
They will be facing No. 3 Sussex Central, a team that turned heads with a 9-1 regular season. The Golden Knights fell on opening day at Hodgson, 26-6, but they were not tested in the next nine regular-season games, giving up just 15 points in those contests while scoring 325. Seven of the nine wins were shutouts.
In the postseason, the Golden Knights have defeated Appoquinimink, the sixth-seed, before edging second-seeded Dover, 21-20, in the second round in the state capital. The Knights feature Isaac Barnes as a dual-threat quarterback, but he has plenty of weapons. Shihiem Williams, Zion Reed and Tyjhier Sheppard-Parker all ran for more than 500 yards this season. Many of the same players stand out on defense, which is strong up front and in the backfield.
Central is gunning for its first state championship. The Golden Knights have appeared in four other title games, including a 34-17 loss to Salesianum in 2006.