NEWBURGH – The fortunes for Middletown football have changed greatly over the past two months.
Coach Tim Strenfel was not optimistic that the spring season would even be played, with all the concerns from officials about the high-risk nature of playing football in the midst of the COVID pandemic.
“I’m not getting anybody’s hopes up,’’ he told his players, “because every time that I got my hopes up, we sort of got shot down.’’
Football eventually got the go-ahead, and his tune changed.
“I was like, wow, if we get six games in, guys, we will be so blessed,’’ Strenfel said.
The Middies have done one better, likely assuring themselves a seventh game and berth in the Section 9 Class AA “championship’’ game, with a stirring 22-14 victory at Newburgh Free Academy on Friday night.
Among the Class AA hierarchy (all with one division loss), Middletown beat Newburgh, which beat Monroe-Woodbury, which beat Middletown in overtime on March 26. Barring any changes in past tie-breaking procedures, point differential in head-to-head meetings will come into play in a three-way tie, with Newburgh at plus-13, Middletown at plus-5 and Monroe-Woodbury at minus-18 – that would set up another NFA-Middletown clash on April 23 or 24.
PHOTO GALLERY:Newburgh v. Monroe-Woodbury football
“I told these guys, I didn’t think we were going to play a game this year,’’ said Strenfel, whose team plays Class A leader Port Jervis in Friday’s Erie Bell game, “and now, essentially, we have three championship games in a row.’’
Middletown took advantage of four Newburgh turnovers, and scored twice in the fourth quarter to earn the win. Jermaine McCray caught a 9-yard touchdown pass from Dalton Howell, just over the fingertips of a Newburgh defender, early in the fourth quarter. And Justin Sandoval booted a 24-yard field goal with 2:45 to play for the 22-14 lead.
Still, Newburgh mounted one more threat in an attempt to tie. NFA quarterback Amarri Tice completed three intermediate passes, quickly moving the Goldbacks to the Middletown 13. He ran 3 yards on a keeper, but dropped the next snap for a loss of 2 yards. Tice scrambled 9 yards to the Middletown 6, setting up a fourth down-and-three call. NFA coach Bill Bianco said Tice had three options on the final play but ended up throwing the ball to an empty spot in the end zone, allowing Middletown to take over and take a knee to kill the clock.
Strenfel said he and defensive coordinator Chris Conklin inserted a defensive package to take away prime receiver threat xxx Johnson, using defender Zion Roberts. The Middletown defensive line contributed stifled the inside run threats and had solid pass rushing. Tice completed nine of 16 throws for 118 yards.
“Sloppy” was the way Bianco described the game, with the uncharacteristic turnovers and a bevy of penalties.
“It’s tough to chase those turnovers,’’ Bianco said. “Every time we had a little momentum, we kind of took two steps forward and then two steps back. It was just one of those games where we couldn’t get out of our own way.’’
Newburgh scored on its opening possession when Tice found Elijah Bevier down the middle on a 28-yard throw. A Sam Ervin interception set up a Josh Soter 1-yard run off the right side, forging a 7-7 tie late in the first quarter.
Rodney Bell put Middletown up a touchdown when he caught a short pass in the left flat and beat the defender to the end one from 12 yards. Sandoval’s extra point was blocked.
Unique Hicks put Newburgh back on top, making a catch on the right sideline and stutter stepped to allow his defender to race past him before completing the 32-yard connection 29 seconds before halftime.
Howell completed 10 of 17 throws for 154 yards. Bell made four catches for 67 yards, adding eight tackles and a fumble recovery. McCray had four grabs for 42 yards, and a fumble recovery.
Newburgh is supposed to travel to Kingston on Friday for their long-standing annual clash, but Bianco said there is a possibility the opponent may be shifted to Pine Bush because league games take precedence and that contest was postponed earlier this season. Kingston is playing as an independent in 2021 so the NFA game is not a league game.