It’s not easy to admit, but I wasn’t exactly crushed when Salesianum School lost in the state championship football game on Saturday, even though my Salesianum roots run deep — three generations of my family have attended Sallies and my father is in the school’s Hall of Fame and the Salesian family has been part of our family for as long as I can remember.
Still … I found a small part of me pulling for Smyrna High as David tried to slay Goliath on Saturday, although this David came armed with more than a sling — Smyrna’s 32-26 victory and its first-ever championship in football capped off one of the best football seasons in Delaware history.
Historically, Smyrna has been nothing special in football, especially compared with a perennial power like Salesianum – the Eagles were 5-5 last year and 2-8 the year before that. That all changed this year, when the Eagles went 8-1 in the regular season, losing only to Sallies 76-56. Smyrna averaged 56 points per game during the regular season and 39 points per game in the playoffs, against the best teams in the state. The fewest points they scored in a regular-season game was 40, against Dover, which is traditionally one the best teams in the Henlopen Conference. In the playoffs, Smyrna rolled up 56 points against Mount Pleasant, 30 against another perennial power, William Penn, and then 32 against Salesianum in the championship game, although the Eagles did have to work overtime in that one.
Even in their only defeat, the Eagles scored 56 points against Sallies, which is mindboggling – there have been entire seasons when the Sals didn’t give up that many points.
But, ironically, it was the defense that won the title for Smyrna, with a dramatic goal-line stand that stopped the Sals cold on fourth down in OT. So, even though the Eagles breezed through most of their memorable season, they showed they had the heart to win a close game and to deal with adversity – they trailed William Penn by 13 points in the second quarter of the semifinals and trailed Sallies 18-6 at halftime of the championship game — as well as the talent to win the blowouts.
The greatness of this Smyrna team was acknowledged on Wednesday when the 2015 All-State teams were announced and the Eagles had nine players recognized, including running back Will Knight, the offensive player of the year who scored 38 touchdowns this season. Also on the first team were quarterback Nolan Henderson, wide receiver Donte Ritchie and offensive linemen Terren Carter and Jerren Carter. Named to the second team were receiver Brandon Bishop, defensive tackle Jeff Campbell, defensive back Rodney Ruff and linebacker Eli Hutchinson, who made the game-saving tackle in the win over Salesianum.
That tackle was a fairy tale ending to a fairy tale season and nobody knows if it will ever happen again. Seven of those All-State players are seniors, although Henderson is a junior and Knight is just a sophomore, so the Eagles will lose a lot of key players to graduation and it remains to be seen how good they’ll be in the future. Certainly, nobody expects them to match their magical 2015 season.
As for the Sals, well, we still have those seven state football championships in our trophy case as consolation. And, of course, there’s always next year…