In the aftermath of Middletown's first ever state-championship victory last Saturday, Zach Welch made sure to soak in the scene at M&T Bank Stadium. The junior running back/kicker listened to the Knights' orange-clad crowd hooting and hollering, watched his coach, Kevin Lynott, hugging everyone in sight and, perhaps most poignantly, zeroed in on his senior teammates romping around in a state of jubilation.
To Welch, that meant more than his game-high 245 total yards, his three touchdowns or his 25 points.
"I'll never forget looking at my teammates - the seniors -- and seeing them smiling and celebrating," said the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Welch. "It made me feel real good knowing that I could help them [win a championship] in their final year."
Those were fitting words on a team full of selfless players who are quick to credit their teammates and even quicker to deflect praise.
He might not admit it, but Welch, a three-way standout running, kicking and playing defense, carried his team at times this year. He's had clutch field goals with the game on the line. He's busted off backbreaking touchdown runs to slam the door in the fourth quarter. And he's picked off passes to destroy the opposition's momentum.
Last Saturday's 43-6 win over Douglass was no different. In many ways, it was practically a microcosm of Welch's 2011 season. Welch didn't make any significant defensive stops, but he did rush for a game-high 175 yards and three scores; kick a 27-yard field goal and four extra points; and return the ball twice for 66 yards.
"I couldn't have done it without my teammates," said Welch, who rushed for 1,729 yards and 27 touchdowns, picked off five passes and kicked nine field goals this year. "If the line didn't block like they had been all year, then I would never have been able to get going against Douglass. And if the [special teams] blockers didn't open up lanes or the holder didn't get the ball down for me I would never be able to return kicks or kick field goals, either. I owe everything to them."
Welch had several big plays on Saturday, but arguably the most significant came on his shortest run. After both teams traded possessions at the game's outset, Middletown positioned themselves to score late in the first quarter. Welch took a handoff inside the Douglass 1-yard line and plowed over the goal line, giving the Knights a 7-0 lead.
"Getting our rhythm down and going right down the field to score was huge," Welch said. "We knew we had to come out and make a statement early. We couldn't let them get in the game."
Middletown scored again on a Ben Lewis touchdown reception just a few minutes later.
Then, after the defense stuffed Douglass, the Knights drove downfield before stalling inside the 10. In came Welch to attempt a 27-yard field goal.
The stage may have been heightened for this particular kick, but for a guy who drilled a pair of game-winning three-pointers three weeks prior against Walkersville, the venue and situation didn't faze him. Welch proceeded to split the uprights.
"[My holder] got the ball down perfect for me all year, and he came through again," Welch said. "I'm just out here doing my part to help the team. I consider myself more of a running back, but I did play soccer when I was younger, so I guess that qualified me to kick (laughs). If my team needs my leg, I'm more than happy to keep kicking for them."
The 27 yarder turned out to be fairly important considering Douglass answered with a touchdown right before half, making the score 16-6. But the Knights weren't about to let them back in the game after last year's state-finals loss to McDonough.
After halftime, Lewis promptly raced 53 yards to make it a three-score game. Welch followed by closing the door with back-to-back short touchdown runs sandwiched between a 55-yard kick return. By the time the onslaught ended Middletown had run off 27 straight points for the 43-6 victory.
"We pretty much just played Middletown football the whole way," Welch said. "We ran hard, the line blocked and we played great defense. It's been like that the whole year."
Indeed it has.
But will it continue? Can the Knights possibly cull up the same discipline, drive and camaraderie that made the 2011 squad so exceptional in future years.
"This was definitely a special year," Welch said. "But we've got to do it again; we can't get complacent. That's how I'm coming out next year, and I hope all the juniors have that mentality, too. A lot of teams win one championship, but not many can win two in a row. So we definitely want to leave a mark our senior years as well. For now, though, this [2011 team] is something I'll never forget."
Top Performers (Offense)
Robert Chesson, RB, Old Mill: 154 yards Devonte Shields, QB, Old Mill: 236 yards, 2 TDs Torie Wagner, WR, Old Mill: 5 receptions, 74 yards, TD; fumble return TD; 33-yard int. return Mark Green, RB, Quince Orchard: 215 yards, 3 TDs William Crest, QB, Dunbar: 127 yards Lavar Highsmith, RB, Dunbar: 134 total yards Deontay McManus, ATH, Dunbar: about 100 total yards, TD Gabe Sherrod, QB, Perryville: 179 yards, TD Ethan Griffen, ATH, Perryville: 184 total yards Zach Welch, RB, Middletown: 245 total yards, 3 TDs; 1 FG Mike Pritts, QB, Middletown: 162 total yards, 2 TDs Ben Lewis, WR, Middletown: 4 receptions, 88 yards, TD; 56 rushing yards Taitor Reynolds, QB, Douglass: 118 yards, TD Paul Harris, WR, Douglass: 134 total yards Aaron Wells, RB, River Hill: 164 yards, 2 TDs Raamah Vaughn, QB, River Hill: 135 total yards, 3 TDs