If you are a fan of Middletown football, rest assured, you are not stuck in a sports themed version of Bill Murray's Groundhog Day nor are you experiencing Deja Vu. Instead your feelings of familiarity stem from the fact that your Middletown Blue Raiders are making their third straight trip to the PIAA-3A title game.
Middletown picked up their invite to Hershey Park Stadium for the title bout opposite Aliquippa courtesy of a 35-21 victory over Scranton Prep last Friday. The two-touchdown win over the Cavaliers marks the third straight year the Blue Raiders have ended Scranton's season on the turf of Bethlehem's BASD Stadium, although this year was a semifinal tangle while the previous two meetings were quarterfinal tilts.
"They have some really good players and a good program and they play really hard. Today we were luckily enough to come out on the other side of it," said head coach Brett Myers. "Don't want to take anything away from them because they played extremely well, they could have quit but they did a great job. We just have some guys that have been in this situation before and I think that helped today."
The familiarity in high pressure situations worked in Middletown's favor nearly from the opening whistle. Scranton won the coin toss and elected to receive which set the stage for a Blue Raider defense that was ready for the spot light. A quick Cavalier three and out, that produced just one-yard, setup what should have been a routine punt from Scranton. Only the snap was not routine and sailed over the punters head and into the end zone. Adonis Taveras beat Scranton's Aiec Buttner to the ball for a 7-0 lead just 32 seconds into the contest.
Two more Scranton punts were sandwiched around one from Middletown but on the Blue Raiders' second drive of the game Jose Lopez got going. The junior standout picked up the first of two scores on his fifth carry, this one covering 59 yards, to give Middletown a 14-0 lead after only eight and a half minutes.
The Blue Raider defense continued their first half dominance, forcing another three and out, but the offense was unable to capitalize thanks to a few miscues. Those miscues came after the drive started with a 52-yard Scott Ash to Lamar Ventura completion that took Middletown from their own 26 to the Cavalier 22. A bad hand off, coupled with an illegal procedure penalty, killed the drive, which ended with a missed 33-yard field goal attempt, leaving the game 14-0 early in the second quarter.
Despite the setback, the defense continued to answer the call by forcing the first of four turnovers on downs. This time Scranton was able to piece together a small drive totaling 52 yards before the Blue Raiders flexed their muscle but the result was still a scoreless possession for the Cavaliers. A holding penalty stalled Middletown's ensuing drive but once again the Blue Raider defense was up to the challenge, forcing another three and out that was highlighted by Odell Green's sack.
With the first half clock winding down, Middletown used their quick tempo offense to march down the field for a 21-0 halftime lead. A few Lopez runs got the drive rolling but it was the passing game that stretched the lead. Ash hit Richie Sykes on back-to-back plays for a quick 45 yards. The final completion was a 23-yard TD and came with 57-seconds remaining before intermission.
Scranton's decision to receive the game's opening kick provided Middletown with the opportunity to ensure control remained on their side as the second half got underway. The Blue Raiders took advantage of that opportunity on the second play of the half. Sykes broke free from a Scranton tackler and raced 60 yards for a 28-0 lead just 46 seconds into the third quarter.
"High school football is a game of momentum and we seemed to have a lot of that at different times," said Myers. " They obviously got a little bit of a swing there and we have to improve on finishing games for next week but momentum dictates the game and we had it most of the game."
Middletown's defense continued to shine, keeping it a 28-0 game by ending two straight Scranton drives with fourth down stops. Unfortunately, the offense began to sputter, picking up only eight yards in between the two Cavalier turnovers on downs. The offensive struggles continued on Middletown's next drive of the third stanza which ended on a fumbled snap in Cavalier territory. Scranton wasted no time capitalizing on the Middletown mistake as standout QB Leo O'Boyle hit Michael Grady for a 70-yard score on the first play from scrimmage, making it a 28-7 game with 27-seconds remaining in the third.
Another stalled Blue Raider drive chewed up the final few seconds of the third as well as the first few seconds of the fourth while moving the Middletown fans closer to the edge of their seats. A solid punt by Avery Williams backed Scranton up and put the Cavaliers 73 yards from the end zone. O'Boyle did lead his squad down the field but the 12-play scoring drive chewed up valuable clock, giving the senior's six-yard TD pass to Brendan Colleran that came with 7:47 remaining in the game a bit of a hollow feel.
Any chance the Cavaliers had of a comeback ended on Middletown's ensuing drive. Despite the Blue Raiders' tallying just 41 yards and a turnover on their previous three possessions, they only needed two plays on this drive to secure their spot in the PIAA-3A title game. After a first down run from Green that went for no gain, Lopez put the game on ice with an 80-yard scamper that highlighted his 221-yard game and made it 35-14 with just under seven minutes left to play.
O'Boyle managed to lead Scranton to one final score, this one an eight-yard strike to Colleran, but it came with a mere 48 seconds remaining in the game and only served to set the final at 35-21.
As for the match-up with Aliquippa, the Blue Raiders are hoping this is the year they can clear the District 7 hurdle as all three of Middletown's title game opponents have hailed from the same district. The first title game appearance, back in 2016, ended with the Blue Raiders holding silver medals while Beaver Falls hoisted the championship hardware. In 2017 it was Quaker Valley taking home the state hardware. The Blue Raiders look to reverse the trend on December 8th with kick off for the 2018 title game set for high noon in Hershey.