IRHS Football vs. Laurel-BCom 3.jpg

Indian River football players, from left, Hayden Hall, Ashton Stephens and Harold Toomey lead the team onto the field before the start of their game against Laurel on Nov. 5.

With more three weeks of practice under their collective belts, the 2021 Indian River High School football team will be raring to go this Saturday, Nov. 27.

Head coach Phil Townsend’s upstart squad begins its quest to win the Division 1A state championship with a 1 p.m. opening kickoff against the St. Andrew’s School Cardinals from Middletown. The game will be played at the neutral site of Appoquinimink High School, also in Middletown. Digital tickets for the game may be purchased by accessing the DIAA GoFan website at https://education.delaware.gov/diaa/sport_championships/digital-ticketing/.

The quarterfinal showdown marks the first post-season game for the IR gridiron program since 2013.

“Making the playoffs for the first time since the 2013 campaign was the team’s biggest achievement,” said Townsend. And it was a well-deserved achievement “by this group of young men,” he added.

Two of the Indians’ practices this past week were staged on the artificial turf at Cape Henlopen High School to prepare for similar turf at the Appoquinimink gameday site.

“In the playoffs, you do anything to prepare,” said Townsend. “Practicing on the turf is just one more thing to do to get ready for [our] game.”

Townsend insists that his defense must stop the Cardinal offense from using trick maneuvers and long passes.

“If we limit the number of long passes, then we will be fine,” he said. “They have a good quarterback” in senior Michael Lilley “and some tall receivers,” in the form of sophomores Yasir Felton and Griffin Patterson, junior William Dulaney and senior Brandon Graves. “Defensively, they have athletes who can move around the field. If we play them the way we know how to, it should be a fun game for us.”

Townsend said he doesn’t believe the Cardinals have played as many good teams as the Indians have this season, and he anticipates a well-played contest.

“To beat them, we must play Indian River football,” he noted. “From the first to the final whistle, we need to play physical, play together and have everyone do their jobs. If we do that, then we will win.”

Senior running back and leading rusher Dalton Hall will be a key factor for IR as he lugs the ball from a frequent full-house (three-back) backfield set behind senior quarterback Ryan Sheerer. Since the Indians like to employ a ball-and-clock-controlling “smash-mouth” style of attack, the offensive line must perform up to the lofty standards they set earlier this season. So, too, must the defensive line control the trenches while putting steady pressure on quarterback Lilley.

The Indians (5-1-0 district, 5-4-0 overall) achieved several milestones on their way to the postseason. They recorded five victories in a season, for the first time since the 2013 squad compiled a 6-5-0 record. It was also the first time IR put up 30 or more points in four games since the 2012 team’s seven such outings. They also recorded two shutouts in the same season, for the first time since the 2010 squad turned the trick three times.

St. Andrew’s (4-2-0 district, 6-4-0 overall), a District 1 member school, finished the regular season as the No. 4 seed in the eight-team Division 1A playoff field. Head coach Patrick Moffitt’s team won its first four District 1A games; 42-0 over Wilmington Dickinson, 41-0 at Christiana, 34-6 over Wilmington Charter and 42-14 over Glasgow. Later in the season, they lost 62-28 to St. Elizabeth and 27-7 to Tatnall in district play. In non-district action, the Cardinals defeated Maryland Severn School 27-7 and Maryland School for the Deaf 31-28, while losing 44-0 to Tower Hill and 48-8 to Wilmington Friends.

Indian River, the No. 5 seed in the Division 1A playoffs, finished the District 2 regular season one game behind regular-season champion and No. 1 seed Laurel after dropping a 14-13 overtime verdict when their point-after-touchdown attempt was blocked on Friday, Nov. 5.

Townsend’s team gained momentum by opening the Division 1A season with convincing homefield triumphs over Odessa (31-0) and Seaford (35-6). They also notched key road victories at Polytech (42-26) and First State Military Academy (34-0). They were awarded a forfeit victory over Early College at Delaware State University when that school’s administration opted to cease operations due to a lack of student-athletes.

The Green & Gold opened the season with a 48-15 non-district home loss to Stephen Decatur, and also lost non-district games at eventual Division 1A No. 2 seed St. Elizabeth (14-7) and to visiting Division 2A Delmar (35-7). Their Sept. 24 visit to Division 1A rival Brandywine was canceled after it was determined that IR would not have enough student-athletes to compete in the wake of injuries and the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the keys to IR’s playoff run was its athletes’ dogged perseverance in the face of adversity, which pleasantly surprised the head coach.

“The biggest surprise was how the team handled adversity,” said Townsend. “We’ve had a year like no other, with COVID-19 issues and injuries.” Fortunately, he said, “We had players step up in key situations to play well. The list begins with [freshmen] Luke Hitchens and Caleb Russell, and [sophomores] Collin King, Dylan Everett, and Alex and Nick Butts. The list could go on and on. These are underclassmen who really stepped up when called upon. We have also handled adversity well by not giving up after losing to Decatur and St. Elizabeth, but rather continuing to put in work each week.”

There were several disappointments during the regular season, one of which has been a concern in recent seasons.

“I wish more kids who are walking the halls would come out for football,” said Townsend. Part of the issue,” he said, “is grades, or kids who are focused on [just] one sport these days.” The other disappointments, he said, were “losses to St. Elizabeth and Laurel — games in which we should have come away with wins.”

Townsend said the season’s funniest moment occurred during the summer at the team dinner “when the boys played this new ‘walk football’ where you can’t run — you have to walk. To see some of these guys was hilarious,” concluded the head coach.

Elsewhere in the 2021 DIAA football playoffs

There are three other quarterfinal games in Division 1A. Friday’s action features No. 1 seed Laurel hosting No. 8 seed Odessa, while No. 2 seed St. Elizabeth welcomes No. 7 seed Wilmington Charter. Saturday’s other quarterfinal has No. 6 seed Seaford visiting No. 3 seed Tatnall.

Schools from the two larger divisions division began their post-season play last weekend with opening-round contests. In the largest enrollment Division 3A, DIAA Division 1 defending state champion, No. 6 seed Sussex Central handled No. 11 seed Caesar Rodney, 35-0, and travels to No. 3 seed Salesianum for Saturday’s quarterfinal. William Penn (No. 8) defeated No. 9 seed Hodgson Vo Tech, 41-6, and will visit No. 1 seed Smyrna in Friday’s quarterfinal. Appoquinimink (No. 7) defeated No. 10 seed Cape Henlopen, 36-0, and visits No. 2 seed Middletown in Friday’s quarterfinal. Saturday’s remaining quarterfinal pits host and No. 4 seed St. Georges against No. 5 seed Dover.

In Division 2A action, No. 8 seed St. Mark’s edged DIAA Division 2 defending state champion and No. 9 seed Howard Tech, 14-6 and visits No. 1 seed Archmere in Saturday’s quarterfinal. Delaware Military Academy (No. 5) handled No. 12 seed Concord, 52-0 and travels to No. 4 seed Caravel Academy for Saturday’s quarterfinal. Delmar (No. 6) bested No. 11 seed Newark, 43-7 and visits No. 3 seed Wilmington Friends in Saturday’s quarterfinal. In a defensive battle, No. 7 seed Tower Hill conquered No. 10 seed Sussex Tech, 14-0 and visits No. 2 seed Woodbridge in Friday’s quarterfinal.

Each of this weekend’s quarterfinal winners will play semifinal games the weekend of Dec. 3-4, with the respective championship showdowns slated for Saturday, Dec. 11.

Staff Reporter

Mike is a veteran sports journalist, covering generations of student-athletes in Pennsylvania, Texas and Delaware. He moved to the area in 2018 with his wife, Colleen. His passion for people and sports enables him to honor young athletes’ achievements.