MIDDLETOWN — As a kid, Reese Poffenbarger’s sport of choice was clear-cut.
“My first true love was basketball,” the Middletown High School senior said.
This made perfect sense, considering the family he belonged to.
Reese’s mother, Amy, had played hoops at the University of Missouri and professionally for the Kansas City Mustangs of the Women’s Basketball Association before coaching the sport for years.
And Reese’s younger sister, Saylor, would also make a name for herself on the basketball court. The towering Middletown junior has starred two years for the Knights, played for the United States national team in the 2019 FIBA Americas U16 Championship in Chile and committed to a scholarship with the University of Connecticut, the preeminent women’s basketball program.
Likewise, Reese dominated in youth basketball, thanks to his mother teaching him the sport’s fundamentals, like ball handling, passing and form shooting, when he was 3 or 4 years old.
“So I thought I was going go play big-time basketball somewhere,” he said. “And then reality kind of hit in eighth grade, when I was still 5-foot-6. I might not be going to Kentucky or Duke.”
At some point, most kids who play sports confront a similar reality. But this particular kid wasn’t quite ready to give up on his athletic dreams.
“I was like, ‘You know what, I’m a pretty good quarterback,” said Poffenbarger, who had been playing football since he was 8 or 9 years old. “I might as well just take this to the next level.”
He hit the weight room, worked with a quarterback coach and logged countless offseason hours on the football field, molding himself into the kind of quarterback who could help Middletown’s football team achieve big things.
With his strong right arm throwing accurate passes, legs that scramble or dash for big gains, and leadership ability, the 6-foot-2 Poffenbarger has helped propel Middletown into Saturday’s Class 2A state championship game against Potomac at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Poffenbarger has no reason to regret shifting his athletic focus from basketball to football, not with a chance to play in a state final at Annapolis. In fact, that very opportunity is one of the reasons he decided not to play basketball last season at Middletown after playing that sport his first two years there.
“I didn’t play basketball because one, just to develop my body to get ready to play [football] at the next level after high school, but also to try to get more of a leadership role with the football program,” Poffenbarger said.
He said he plans to play hoops for the Knights this season, but his return to the court has been delayed by the postseason run he helped engineer this fall.
“He does a fantastic job. He understands and knows the game, it’s kind of crazy how well he knows the game,” Knights coach Collin Delauter said. “And his positive leadership is what stands out the most this year.”
Despite his basketball-first mentality as a kid, Poffenbarger showed promise as a youth football quarterback. Running Middletown’s trademark Power I offense, Poffenbarger made plays with his legs.
“I also had a pretty accurate arm, not always as strong of an arm as I do now,” he said. “As I got into high school, I just kept getting better and better at throwing because I was working with my quarterback coach, Chris Baucia.”
Middletown was a run-first program. Had been for years. But with Poffenbarger’s arm developing into a weapon, the Knights’ offense began to feature plenty of passing. With a deep receiving corps comprised of Brian Walker, Matthew Mancini, Cole Porter and Jalen Huskey, Poffenbarger has completed 192 of 308 passes for 2,646 yards and 28 touchdowns, with just five interceptions, this season.
The running ability he showed as a kid is still there, too. He’s rushed for 442 yards — second-most for the Knights behind running back Kadin Fisher — and 13 touchdowns, none bigger than the game-winning 15-yarder with 24 seconds left in Middletown’s stirring 31-27 victory over Elkton in the 2A state semis.
Whether passing or running, Poffenbarger is quick to credit his offensive line for opportunities to make plays. Heading into the season, that unit was populated with players who lacked significant varsity experience. Now, it’s a group full of proven components, including junior center Zach Brady, senior left tackle Mason Doody, senior right guard Braden Hoyt, sophomore right tackle Michael Soluri, senior left guard Brian Atkinson and junior right guard Ethan Schmiel (who filled in solidly for the injured Hoyt against Elkton).
“We started off a little slow at the beginning of the year. But especially towards the end of the year and going into playoffs, we really started to pick it up,” Brady said. “Giving [Poffenbarger] time is all he needs. I think if he gets time, we’re probably one of the best offenses there is.”
Block-first tight end and standout defensive lineman Colby Doreen has also aided the line.
“I love making a hole for this dude here to run through,” said Doreen, gesturing toward Poffenbarger. “I do my job, but I just want to give the credit to those five up front because, with a football team, if your line fails, the whole team fails. We saw that last year. We had a lot of the same players last year, but maybe the line wasn’t clicking and we couldn’t get things going.”
Shortly after the Knights failed to qualify for the postseason last season, team leaders like Poffenbarger, Doreen, Porter, Brady and JD Nelson (a linebacker who is one of Middletown’s top tacklers) strived to get the Knights back into the state championship game, which the program reached four straight years from 2010 to 2013, when it captured its third straight state title.
“We were like, ‘Let’s bring the juice back to Middletown,’” said Poffenbarger, who gestured toward Middletown’s stadium. “We were out here, literally, two or three days a week, at like 5:50 or 6 o’clock in the morning, before school in the offseason, in the winter when it was freezing cold.”
They threw before school in the spring, hit the weight room daily and went as hard as possible in summer workouts. All to reach the state championship game.
“And now it’s just kind of surreal that we’re here,” Poffenbarger said.