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Blue Raiders roll to Capital Division crown, will start state title push Nov. 9

By Larry Etter

Press & Journal Staff

717-944-4628
Posted 10/29/18

The Blue Raiders left little doubt as to who is the best team in the Mid-Penn Conference Capital Division on Friday night.

Now, they can work on achieving their biggest goal, one that they have …

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Blue Raiders roll to Capital Division crown, will start state title push Nov. 9

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The Blue Raiders left little doubt as to who is the best team in the Mid-Penn Conference Capital Division on Friday night.

Now, they can work on achieving their biggest goal, one that they have been stopped an agonizing step short of the last two seasons — a state title.

Before Friday’s game, the dual threat of a potential rainstorm hanging in the chilly air as well as the challenge of facing visiting Palmyra buzzed through the crowd at War Memorial Field.

By jumping off to a great start with two touchdowns in the game’s first minute and a half, the Raiders rocked the 8-1 Cougars in a rout, winning the Capital Division championship for the third straight time, 42-6.

The Blue Raiders not only locked up the division title but secured the No. 2 spot in the District III-AAA power ratings.

That placement earns them a first-round bye in the upcoming playoffs. Middletown will play host to the winner of No. 3 seed Wyomissing and No. 6 Littlestown on Nov. 9.

The previous two seasons, the Raiders made it all the way to the AAA state title game, but lost both times at Hersheypark Stadium.

When asked about the week off between games, coach Brett Myers said he would rather play again in a couple days.

He was, however, pleased with his team’s win on Friday.

“We had a good week and it showed tonight,” he said. “The kids did what we expected and played Middletown football.”

A Palmyra win Friday would have tied the Cougars with Middletown in the division. But the depleted visitors, minus their starting quarterback and several other players, were no match for the Raiders, who sported special gray uniforms for the first time. While the defense was pitching a shutout in the first half, the offense lit up the scoreboard for all of its 42 points before halftime.

The Cougars, unable to stop Middletown’s running game while struggling against the Raiders’ superior defense, never had a chance. Jose Lopez finished the night with 150 yards and two touchdowns on just four carries and Richie Sykes topped the 1,000-yard mark on the season, running 15 times for 120 yards and two scores.

The rout started early when Lopez broke off a 53-yard scoring run just three plays into the contest. The run came two plays after Odell Greene opened the game with a 21-yard dash following the kickoff.

Lopez cut through the left side of the line and then outran Palmyra cornerback Seth Robertson to the end zone. Anthony LaVia, perfect again on the night on extra point kicks, made it a 7-0 lead just 33 seconds into the game.

Two plays after Avery Williams’ kickoff, Chris Joseph intercepted Robertson’s pass at the 27 and flew into the end zone for a defensive touchdown. Just that quickly, the Blue Raiders led 14-0.

The Cougars lost their best running back on the first play of the next possession, and the Raiders forced a punt that was downed at the midfield stripe. It took a bit longer for the Middletown offense to score this time, using seven plays to go the distance for a 21-0 lead.

A pair of passes covering 11 yards to Lopez and 19 to Sykes set up the score, an 8-yard swing pass from Scott Ash to Lopez at the 6:03 mark.

Middletown’s defense was relentless throughout the first half and yielded just 19 net yards prior to halftime. Adonis Taveras, Morgan Billman, Joey Gusler, Cole Senior and Ethan Miller up front, along with linebackers Gage Radabaugh, Trayvon Joseph and Jeremy Wells, led the way.

With 4:16 left in the first quarter, after the defense had forced another three-and-out, the Raiders took over at their 23. A penalty on first down was offset by an Ash-to-Greene connection for 31 yards.

Two plays later, following a 7-yard catch by Antonio Bryant, Lopez benefited from the solid blocking by his teammates and broke off another long scoring run, this one covering 50 yards right up the middle of the Palmyra defense.

“They always do a great job, and I love these guys,” Lopez said.

With 3:28 left in the first period, the Blue Raiders owned a 28-0 lead and the rout was on. The Cougars were dealt another blow when Brandon Luft’s kickoff return for a touchdown was negated by a holding penalty. The Cougars instead went three-and-out again and were forced to punt.

Four plays into the second quarter, the Raiders struck again, this one coming on an 11-yard run by Sykes that capped a seven-play, 69-yard drive. Billman, Miller, Gusler, Senior and Collin Heffner paved the way for a commanding 35-0 lead with 11:15 still left in the first half.

A pass interception by Sykes on third-and-13 was erased by a Middletown penalty and gave the Cougars new life. But, once again, the visitors went nowhere and turned the ball over on a failed fourth down try.

On first down from the Middletown 45, Lopez took off on a 44-yard run to the Palmyra 11. Two plays later, following a Middletown penalty, Sykes went up the middle, made two quick cuts and broke a tackle, scoring on a 15-yard touchdown run that lifted the home team to a crowd-pleasing 42-0 lead with 6:57 left in the first half.

Later in the period, Sykes ran 24 yards to the Palmyra 37, hurdling a Palmyra player on the way. The carry pushed him to the 1,000-yard mark for the season, joining Lopez at that milestone. The Blue Raiders did not score on the drive and, in fact, did not score any more points in the game. But it did not matter.

With the mercy clock running from the outset of the second half, the Cougars finally broke into the scoring column on a 43-yard scoring pass from Stephen Lyons to Sean Carter. The score came against a mix of starters and backups on the Middletown side.

With Dylon Zettlemoyer running the second-team offense through the remainder of the game, the Blue Raiders ran out the rest of the time in the third quarter. T. J. Daniels carried 10 times for 50 yards in a drive that carried into the fourth quarter.

Palmyra had one more chance  after taking over on downs at their own 30 with 9:18 left. But the drive ran out of time at the Middletown 20 and the Blue Raiders celebrated the division championship.

Ash completed 6 of 10 passes for 90 yards moving him close to the 1,000 yard mark for the season.

The top six teams in the power ratings make the playoffs. Undefeated Lancaster Catholic is No. 1 and also gets a bye. They will play host to the winner of Annville-Cleona and Bermudian Springs.

The Wyomissing (8-2) vs. Littlestown (7-3) game is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday at Wyomissing. If Wyomissing’s field is unplayable, the game will move to Albright College. Game time at Albright would be 7 p.m. Friday. 

Middletown’s only loss on the season was to Bishop McDevitt, 40-14 on Sept. 7. McDevitt is the No. 1 seed in AAAA, with a 9-1 record.

The Blue Raiders have made it to the state title game the last two seasons, falling to Quaker Valley, 41-24, last year, and to Beaver Falls in 2016, 30-13.