Middletown High School senior Zach Welch belongs to a very esteemed group. But it has nothing to do with the 33 touchdowns he scored this fall in leading the Knights to a perfect 14-0 record and second consecutive Class 2A state championship.
Welch is a Black Knight. And not the King Arthur-type.
Becoming a Black Knight, Middletown coach Kevin Lynott said, is the most elite honor given to members of the football program. And the status is based solely on defensive performance.
The first class of Black Knights was named in 1978. According to the team’s website, which has a list of Black Knights dating back to 1981, the group is comprised of players who played the game with tremendous heart and used every fiber in their body to help their team succeed.
Once a player is “knighted,” he automatically becomes a team captain, Lynott said, and a member of the leadership council that meets once per week.
“That gives an indication about how we feel about the defense. Defense is clearly, it’s understood that defense is what we pride ourselves in,” Lynott said.
Senior linebacker Sean Wenner, who led Middletown in tackles this year with 72 — 54 were solo tackles — was the first player to earn Black Knight honors this year.
He was joined by Welch, Bradley Rinehart, Jess Powell, Frank Meighan, Cody Martin, Matt Lloyd, Rick Leonard, Parker Johnson, Luke Headley, Justin Falcinelli, David Buchanan and Jacob Bolton.
The number of players initiated this year is indicative of how strong Middletown’s defense was this fall.
Often overshadowed by an explosive offense that scored 542 points (38.7 per game), the Knights defense only allowed 10 points per game with two complete shutouts.
And everything starts there, Lynott said.
Middletown’s offense was not at its best in Saturday’s 30-12 win against Prince George’s County’s Frederick Douglass at M&T Bank Stadium. The Knights punted on three first-quarter possessions.
But the defense went to work.
“As coach talked about, our game plan is to try to control the ball and have the ball and time management as much as we can. So what we stress on defense is getting in and getting off the field so our offense can control the game,” said Rinehart, who led Middletown with six solo tackles on Saturday in addition to catching two touchdown passes.
The Knights’ defense works like a machine, with many different parts coming together for one purpose.
Middletown’s monstrous line was even bigger and stronger this year, thanks to a lot of offseason work, Lynott said. But perhaps more importantly, each player remained focused only on a specific role as one part of a grander scheme.
Players like Martin at strong safety and Meighan are unsung heroes that do not care about accolades as long as the job gets done.
“If you try to do more than your job, that’s almost as bad as not doing enough, because you’re going to get confused and make mistakes and neglect what you’re supposed to do,” Lynott said. “These guys take pride in themselves, knowing they have a job to do, they believe that if everyone does his job, bites into their little piece of the pie, the whole thing is unstoppable.”
There’s no denying the importance of putting big numbers up on the scoreboard, but producing on offense becomes easier, Lynott added, when the defense prevents opponents from creating scoreboard pressure.
“Our defense puts less pressure on our offense. We can try different things and not feel like we are never going to get the ball back,” Lynott said. “Defensive play is vital. Middletown has always prided itself on defense, as defense being the thing that’s going to win championships and be the rock of the program.”