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The reign is over: Middletown falls in district title game, ending three-year streak

By Larry Etter

Press & Journal Staff

717-944-4628
Posted 11/17/19

Hearts were broken, tears were shed and another great season ended too early.

The Middletown football team’s three-year hold on the PIAA District III 3A title ended on Saturday afternoon at …

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The reign is over: Middletown falls in district title game, ending three-year streak

Posted

Hearts were broken, tears were shed and another great season ended too early.

The Middletown football team’s three-year hold on the PIAA District III 3A title ended on Saturday afternoon at Wyomissing.

The Spartans, who lost previous championship tries to the Blue Raiders in 2016 and 2017, put together a solid game plan and did just enough to wrest the trophy from the hands of the Middletown players in a 24-21 decision on a chilly, but sunny, afternoon on their home turf.

Wyomissing, which came into the game ranked by many as the number one 3A team in Pennsylvania, grabbed an early lead, rallied after the Raiders had fought their way to a third quarter edge, and then held off a late charge by their guests with time winding down to claim the hard-earned victory.

While the loss was certainly disappointing for the players, especially the seniors, there was still a lot to be proud of. The Blue Raiders finished up the 2019 season with a terrific 10-2 record but, unfortunately, no titles to show for their hard work. The Raiders finished second to Milton Hershey in the Mid-Penn Conference Capital Division and ended the season as the runner-up to the champion Spartans in district play.

It also ended a run of three straight state championship game appearances.

Middletown head coach Brett Myers, however, kept a positive attitude.

“We made it this far. A lot of teams didn’t,” he said.

“The kids competed all year,” he added, agreeing that this current group had to work harder than his past three teams.

Among the seniors who played their final game as Blue Raiders was Jose Lopez, who closed out a remarkable career as the school’s all-time leading rusher. His total yards ended just shy of 6,200, a record that will most likely stand for a long time.

Lopez was emotional following the loss.

“It was a blessing to be able to have the career I’ve had,” he said. He has scholarship offers from Georgetown, Dartmouth and Moravian.

Lopez told PennLive that his grandfather, Manny Quinones, has Stage IV stomach and appendix cancer.

“Honestly, all I kept thinking about was my grandpa,” he said.

He did everything he could, both physically and verbally, to try to will his team to a win that just eluded them. Playing at times in the second half through bruises and cramps, Lopez carried the ball 18 times for 137 yards and a touchdown.

On offense, the Blue Raiders produced 358 total yards (197 rushing, 161 passing) while the defense limited Wyomissing to 238 total yards. Those numbers, however, did not equate to a victory.

Wyomissing surprised the Blue Raiders on the opening kickoff with a short high kick that was misplayed by the Middletown side. Max Hurleman’s recovery led to a 33-yard field goal by Aidan Cirulli with 8:17 left in the first quarter. The Raiders picked up one first down on their initial possession of the game, but were forced to punt as Wyomissing’s defense held.

The Spartans took over at their own 34 with 5:06 left in the opening frame. Eight plays later, the Spartans reached the Middletown 37 as the quarter expired.

Led by Arthur Dash, Dylon Zettlemoyer, Tajae Broadie, Evan Grogan and Troy Walko, the Middletown defense gave ground grudgingly but the Spartans kept moving. On the ninth play of the second stanza, bullish fullback Evan Niedrowski pushed in from two yards out for a touchdown. Cirulli’s PAT gave the hosts a 10-0 lead with 7:43 left in the first half and put the pressure on the Middletown offense to respond. The pressure mounted when the Raiders were again forced to punt after running six plays.

But Zettlemoyer, Tymir Jackson and Damion Williams made key defensive plays to hold the Spartans in check. Taking over at its own 39 following a punt, the Middletown offense went to work. A Lopez run and an 8-yard pass from Tony Powell to T.J. Daniels gained a first down to the Spartans 46.

On second and 10, under intense pressure, Powell fired downfield for a perfect strike to wide receiver Jarrod Pugh who was crossing deep from left to right. Pugh grabbed the ball in full stride and raced into the end zone for the Raiders’ much-needed touchdown. With 1:09 left in the first half, Nolan Sessa’s extra point made it a 10-7 game and gave the visitors an emotional lift.

The Middletown defense again shut down the Spartans on the opening series of the second half and the Raiders took over at their own 30 following a Wyomissing punt. The possession appeared to be doomed, however, when Jackson was dropped for a 3-yard loss on first down and the Raiders were flagged for holding on the next play.

With the odds stacked against them, the Raiders faced a second-and-21 at the 19. But Powell went to the air and found Chris Joseph on a deep post. Catching the ball at the 50, Joseph took off and, using a great stiff-arm 20 yards downfield, raced to the end zone to give his team the lead. Sessa’s kick lifted the Blue Raiders to a 14-10 edge with 9 minutes on the third quarter clock.

The Spartans, however, came right back and scored quickly on a 62-yard pass play from Jordan Auman to Darren Brunner, a play that was aided when a Middletown cornerback slipped trying to make a play.

With 7:05 left in the third, the Spartans were back in front, 17-14. After putting together a steady drive down the field, the Blue Raiders nearly forged their way back on top. After gaining a first and goal at the four on a 9-yard run by Lopez, an apparent touchdown run by Lopez was erased by a chop block call against the Middletown offense. Three plays later, Hurleman intercepted Powell’s pass in the end zone to turn back the threat.

To make matters worse, Niedrowski ripped off a 62-yard run on first down that ended at the Middletown 21. Three plays later, Auman connected with Hurleman for another touchdown with 12 seconds left in the period. The extra point kick pushed the Blue Raiders into a 10-point hole to start the final frame.

But the Raiders were not yet ready to concede the title.

Starting at its own 18, the offense went to work. With Collin Heffner, Walko, Quincy Reinnagel, Amir Potter and Brock Welsh leading the way, the Blue Raiders forged ahead.

A 23-yard connection between Powell and Pugh following a Wyomissing penalty went for a big gain and a first down at the 46. Runs by Daniels and Jackson kept the march moving in the right direction. On second and 7 from the 13, Lopez capped the drive for the touchdown with 6:44 left in the game. The kick pulled the Raiders to within three, 24-21.

At that point, the Middletown team needed a stop to get the ball back. After giving up one first down, the Blue Raider defense got what it needed. Jackson, Broadie, Dash, Walko, Tim Wagner and Williams made sure that happened. With 3:35 left, the Raiders took over at their own 37, setting the stage for an intense finish. 

Lopez ran for 10 yards on second and 11 and then added one of his signature efforts, breaking several tackles and using his speed on a 38-yard blast to the Spartans’ 26. On second and 5, the Raiders were flagged for illegal motion and a 1-yard loss on the next play had the Middletown offense facing a fourth and 11.

The rally ended when Powell’s desperation throw under pressure was picked off by Wyomissing’s Tommy Grabowski. That interception, with 1:16 left on the clock, ended the Blue Raiders’ threat and their season, short of their goal to repeat as district champions.