Visions of St. Andrew’s senior quarterback Michael Lilley and his penchant for producing big-yardage passing plays — not sugarplums — were dancing in the head of Phil Townsend last week.
The Indian River High School head football coach spent every waking (and non-waking) hour away from his history classes trying to envision how to at least contain the Cardinals’ passing attack that significantly contributed to their 26 points-per-game average en route to a No. 4 seed in the eight team DIAA Division 1A playoffs.
His team practiced diligently, and the coach prayed to the football gods in the hope that his student athletes would play the hard-nosed, smashmouth brand of football that had helped launch the No. 5-seeded Indians into the school’s first playoff game since 2013.
Yes, Virginia. Sometimes, pre-Christmas prayers are answered.
In a performance that would’ve made the U.S. Department of Defense proud, the Indians’ “D” put the “fence” in “defense” by surrounding the St. Andrew’s offense from the opening kickoff to the post-game handshakes. The Green & Gold completely shut down the Cardinals, 36-0, in their DIAA quarterfinal matchup last Saturday at Appoquinimink High School in Middletown.
The win sends Townsend’s triumphant tacklers into this Friday’s 7 p.m. semifinal at No. 1 seed Laurel. It was only last month that those two rivals battled into overtime before Laurel blocked a PAT attempt in overtime to win, 14-13, and lay claim to the Division 1A, District 2 title. Laurel tuned up for the 6-4-0 Indians with a 49-0 victory over Odessa last Friday evening. Digital tickets may be purchased by accessing the DIAA GoFan website at https://gofan.co/app/school/DIAA.
The Indians’ defense was so intense and dominant that most tackles were made by multiple members of the unit.
“Our defense has played well all year and continues to improve each week,” said Townsend. “They play together, play physical, and when everyone does their job, they can shut down any offense. We were able to limit them to zero big plays.”
“Coach Townsend had a very good practice plan for us that utilized all that time” during the last three weeks, said senior linebacker Dalton Hall after IR held the Cardinals (6-6-0) to an unheard-of 29 yards in the air and 46 total yards — both season bests. “We also took two trips to Cape Henlopen High School” in the week preceding the quarterfinal matchup, he said, to practice on turf in preparation for playing on Appoquinimink’s turf field.
“We thought practicing harder the first two weeks would be smarter to save our legs for the game,” added Dalton Hall, whose defensive mates forced three interceptions and recovered a Cardinal fumble. “Coach was very thorough in teaching us our assignment. And the main reason we were so dominating was that we played harder. We had the need to win.”
The Indians had fresher legs and more speed and hit harder throughout the game than did their opponents.
“Members of our defensive line knew that if we could pressure their quarterback, he would make errors and our linebackers could fly around and make tackles,” said senior lineman T.J. Burke, who contributed seven tackles and a sack. “Our defensive front did a great job putting pressure on [Lilley] that forced him to take a sack or throw the ball away. And our defensive secondary has improved phenomenally. Also, we’re getting great performances from freshmen who have really stepped it up to make [the IR defense] so dominant.”
Junior defensive backs Hayden Hall, Ben Cordrey and Donovan Roos each had an interception in the game, while senior defensive end Laron Horsey had a fumble recovery to go with six tackles and a sack.
“Our secondary did a fabulous job of reading their keys and reacting to the ball,” said Townsend. “The weather conditions also helped us, because the wind made it difficult to throw the ball.”
The Indian River “hit parade” was impressive. Senior lineman Gavin Danieri contributed eight tackles and a sack. Hayden Hall and senior nose tackle Jack Williamson each made five stops, and the trio of senior lineman Clifton Toomey and junior DB’s Ashton Stephens and Ja’chi Duncan each had four tackles.
“I knew our defense [had the potential to] dominate ever since last year,” said senior nose tackle Jack Williamson, because there were “numerous players returning and feeding off of last year’s success.” Williamson, who made five tackles, added, “Our secondary was so dominant because they fly around looking to make plays every time the ball is snapped.”
The Indians have recorded three shutouts in the same season for the first time since the 2010 squad turned the trick three times. The team has won six times in a season for the first time since the 2013 squad compiled a 6-5-0 record.
The Indians appeared very confident heading into their semifinal showdown at Laurel this Friday night, Dec. 3.
“If we stay focused in practice all week and everyone executes in the game, we’ll be victorious and advance to the state championship game,” Williamson said.
“I believe our kids are eager to get back on the field with Laurel,” said Townsend. “The kids have called it the ‘revenge game.’ I believe they will be focused all week and ready to prepare.”
Elsewhere in the 2021 DIAA football playoffs
In the other DIAA Division 1A semifinal, No. 2 seed St. Elizabeth (who defeated Wilmington Charter 19-0) will host No. 3 Tatnall (who nipped Seaford 15-12) in Saturday’s 7 p.m. contest at Wilmington’s Abessinio Stadium.
In the largest enrollment Division of 3A, No. 3 Salesianum (which defeated last year’s Division 1 defending state champ Sussex Central, 34-12) takes on host and No. 2 Middletown (which shut out Appoquinimink, 27-0) in Saturday’s 7 p.m. semifinal. The other semifinal pits host and No. 1 Smyrna (a 46-6 winner over William Penn) against No. 5 Dover (which nipped St. Georges, 9-7) Friday night at 7 p.m.
In Division 2A, No. 1 Archmere (a 41-0 winner over St. Mark’s) hosts No. 5 Delaware Military Academy (which beat Caravel, 33-0) in Saturday’s noon semifinal. The other semifinal has No. 2 Woodbridge (a 31-0 victor over Tower Hill) hosting No. 3 Wilmington Friends (a 21-20 winner over Delmar) in Friday night’s 7 p.m. semifinal.
This weekend’s semifinal winners will meet in their respective championship showdowns that are slated for Saturday, Dec. 11.