The balance of power has shifted in Delaware high school sports, mainly because populations and demographics have shifted, and in some cases the meek have indeed inherited the earth.
The best examples of this are two lower-New Castle County schools, Middletown and Smyrna highs. Middletown has been a football power forever, but for the most part its sports programs were middle of the pack until the last decade or so. Ditto for Smyrna, which had an even more middlin’ history in athletics.
Now, with so many people moving into those areas, the little guys have become the big guys, and Middletown grew so fast they had to build a new school and then add another, Appoquinimink. The once-sleepy farm town is booming and so are its high school teams.
But Smyrna is easily the most intriguing case, because the Eagles were almost never a state power in sports, with the notable exception of wresting – Smyrna won five state championships as a Division II team, including three of the first four titles ever held from 1993-96.
But other than wrestling, Smyrna was nothing special in sports. The Eagles won the softball title in 1993 and the boys track team won back-to-back state championships in 1990-91, but that’s it – until recently. With Smyrna’s increase in enrollment and subsequent move up to Division I – there were 749 students at Smyrna when those track teams won their titles and now there are 1,437 students – the Eagles have become an elite athletics program.
That still includes wresting, as the Eagles have won the last five Division I championships. And the girls track team made history in 2013 when it won Smyrna’s first state title in that sport.
But the real mark of their success has come in the two sports that matter the most (with apologies to athletes in all the other sports). Those two, of course, are football and basketball. Fair or not, it’s just a fact that those two sports get the most fan support and media attention. Well, the Eagles had never won a state championship in either sport until they won the Division I football title in 2015 and then repeated in 2016.
Those titles were a long time coming. Other Henlopen schools had won football championships in the past, including Delmar High, which has won five Division II titles, and Laurel and Indian River, which have each won two. Other Henlopen teams that have won Division II football championships are Seaford, Sussex Tech, Lake Forest and Milford. In Division I, Caesar Rodney has won three championships, Dover has won two and Seaford and Cape Henlopen have won one each. And now Smyrna is a part of that championship history.
Then the Eagles did it again, capturing the first boys basketball state championship in school history just a few weeks ago. Winning this year’s football and basketball titles is a heck of a one-two punch for a school that was always in the background when it came to sports.
It’s not just the increased enrollment, of course. Smyrna has been blessed with good coaches and a supportive community. But it’s also obvious that more students means more athletes, and the more athletes a school has, the better the chances that some of them are going to be really, really good.
Meanwhile, a school like Newark, which used to be the dominant team in many sports in the Blue Hen Conference and across the state – especially in football – has faded somewhat, just as other schools have been affected by those shifting populations. Newark has won more football titles (10) than any other school, but it’s been a while since the Yellowjackets were a powerhouse. From 1997-2004 Newark won an amazing seven out of a possible eight championships in football, but the Yellowjackets haven’t won it since that 2004 season. And it’s not a coincidence that the rise of schools like Smyrna happened at the same time as the decline of schools like Newark.
There are exceptions to that what-goes-up-must-come-down rule, of course, notably Salesianum. The Sals will always be good – and sometimes better than that – in almost all sports.
They may not win every state championship, but they’ll be in contention for most of them. Sallies is invulnerable because its enrollment isn’t fenced in by district boundaries, and it’s no secret that its reputation as a sports dynamo attracts many of the best athletes from four states.
That staying power is even more impressive when you consider the declining enrollment and subsequent decline of St. Mark’s as a high school athletics power. It wasn’t that long ago that the Spartans went toe-to-toe with the Sals in just about every sport, but St. Mark’s enrollment has been shrinking at an alarming rate and now it’s a Division II school and the rivalry with Sallies just isn’t the same.
That doesn’t mean St. Mark’s won’t rise again or that Newark won’t win 10 more football championships. But the balance of power has shifted and it doesn’t appear that the pendulum will be swinging back any time soon.