Knights stumble over final step of season

December 02, 2002|by BOB PARASILITI


BALTIMORE - The Middletown football team was proud of the strides they made this season.

Each of the last six weeks constituted a step along the way to a possible Maryland Class 2A state title. The Knights attacked each hurdle in impressive style. In fact, after last week's 35-0 semifinal win over Wicomico, coach Tim Ambrose proclaimed "There is one final step to go."

On Friday though, the ultimate impact of Middletown's five giant steps were erased by three stutters in the second half as Hereford first took control of the line, then the momentum and finally the game to send the Knights to a 20-9 loss in the state final at Ravens Stadium.

"Being up against Hereford 9-0 at the half, we were sitting on the right side of the table," Ambrose said. "In the second half, they made plays and we didn't ... It's pretty simple to figure out."


After a first half where Middletown dictated the game to Hereford, it became the Knights' turn to take dictation in the second half. The Bulls got Middletown's attention early in the third quarter, dropped a bomb late in the period and blew it up in the fourth quarter to keep Middletown away from its coveted top step.

It started when Hereford stopped Middletown's running game cold on the Knights' first possession of the second half. It was quickly followed by a long touchdown pass - something the Bulls rarely throw - to get Hereford on the board. And the final trip up the stairs came by virtue of a pass that sophomore linebacker Bill Rueter batted and caught for an interception, leading to Hereford's game-sealing score.

Step One: Three and out - With the momentum and the lead on their side, the Knights tried to establish an early hold on the second half by forcing the Bulls to punt after receiving the kickoff.

Mission accomplished. But what happened after the punt is what started to send Middletown's escalator to the top starting heading South.

After allowing drives of eight, 10 and 13 plays in the first half, Hereford forced Middletown to run three plays and just kick the ball back.

"When you have the lead, you want to hold them in the beginning of the second half," Ambrose said. "Let's hold them and get the ball back. We did that, our offense sputtered around the whole third quarter."

Hereford made the defensive adjustments to take away Middletown tailback Josh Keeney, the leading rusher and scorer in the state. The control the Knights had on the line of scrimmage was gone and so was the room for Keeney to run.

"I think they just stepped it up more in the second half," Keeney said. "They knew that the ball was going to me. They started to pinch up and some the holes weren't there."

Step Two: The pass: A big chink in the Knights' armor came when Hereford did the unexpected.

The Bulls threw the ball.

"I saw them for two games on film and was at the Edmonson game and only saw (sophomore quarterback Andy DePaola) throw the ball once," Ambrose said.

Hereford decided to do the unexpected by putting the ball in the air and caught the Knights flat-footed.

DePaola used play-action to keep the Knights coming to set up a 48-yard fly pattern down the right hash marks and a touchdown to running back Pat Butt. Middletown's 9-0 comfort zone was down to two points with 4:04 remaining in the third quarter.

"That pass play was too easy," "Ambrose said.

And it began to give Middletown that sinking feeling.

"I think when they caught that long pass ..." Keeney said. "We had them stopped and they busted one on us."

Step Three: The final "slap" - The blow that knocked the Knights off the staircase came with Hereford leading 13-9 and 7:25 remaining in the game.

Middletown had the ball and started a drive from its own 36. After runs by Keeney and Adam Ellison got the Knights past midfield, the call came for quarterback Tyler Lushbaugh to put the ball in the air. Lushbaugh dropped back, only find Rueter rushing up the gut of the line. Rueter batted the pass in the air, then caught it and rumbled to the Middletown 40.

"We got to play action one time and we get intercepted," Ambrose said. "That batted ball came after we got a first down. I thought this was going to take this drive down and score with two or three minutes to go. This was a close game for three quarters ... more than three quarters."

After spending most of the game controlling their destiny, the Middletown players found themselves as a victim of chance.

"That first touchdown (off DePaola's pass) hurt a little, but not much," Middletown lineman Ryan Cutsail said. "Then there were a lot of three-and-outs. But then, the blocked pass. You can always pick up a block, but when the ball is in the air like that and you aren't around it, there isn't much you can do."

Hereford drove down for the final score with 5:29 remaining, putting a moat between the Knights and that much dreamed about final step to a title. Middletown's turn as King of the Hill came up a half-step short, but it can live with it.

"The ball fell in their hands a couple of times when it shouldn't have," Middletown lineman Brian DeMoss said. "But that's the way we play ... you win some and you lose some."

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