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Monday, May 17, 2021

Longtime Rivals Help Define Delaware High School Sports

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Kevin Noonan
Kevin Noonan
Kevin Noonan has covered and commented on the Delaware sports scene for more than 30 years, everything from amateur recreation leagues and high schools to local colleges and the Philadelphia professional teams. He’s been voted Delaware Sportswriter of the Year multiple times and currently covers the Philadelphia Eagles for CBSSports.com and teaches creative writing courses at Wilmington University.

Not all games are created equal. They’re more special when they’re played between long-time rivals, when the players on both teams know each other and respect each other, even if they don’t always like each other.

That’s true on every level, even in high school, even in a small state like Delaware. In fact, sometimes the rivalries in a small state like Delaware are even more intense because everybody is so close.

One of the best rivalries, even if it’s far from the oldest, took place on Saturday, November 19th when Salesianum won the state soccer championship with a nail-biting 3-2 victory over St. Mark’s in not one, but two overtimes. It’s hard to imagine how it could get any better than that, two bitter (but respectful) rivals duking it out for the biggest prize in their sport.

The Sallies-Spartan rivalry, especially in football, might be the best in the state simply because their teams are usually among the best in the state. Of course, the fact that they’re the two biggest Catholic high schools in Delaware doesn’t hurt.

And Salesianum badly needed a rival of St. Mark’s caliber because the Sals didn’t have one before St. Mark’s was born in the early 1970s. Before that, Sallies didn’t really have an in-state rival, with the possible exception of Archmere. For many years, the Auks were the only in-state team that would play Sallies in football, but it was sort of like Delaware-West Chester games – Archmere was too small to compete with the bigger Salesianum and they usually lost.

It got to the point where it just didn’t make sense for Archmere to continue the series and then the only Delaware school that would play Sallies was Middletown. And the Cavaliers’ victory in their first meeting back in 1968 is still part of Delaware sports lore, as the small-town Cavs stunned the big-city Sals. These teams still play each other and since they’re both good, their games usually mean something.

Some rivalries are a simple matter of geography, backyard brawls between schools such as Seaford and Laurel, Sussex Central and Lake Forest, Brandywine and Concord and Newark and Glasgow. Much of the time, the kids from those schools went to the same middle school or played on each other’s little league or CYO teams or played against each other for many years. Familiarity can breed contempt, but it can also breed respect.

Some rivalries develop because two schools play in the same conference and are consistent contenders, which makes sense because it’s hard to have a good rivalry if one team is good and the other team is bad. That’s why a Newark-William Penn or Dover-Caesar Rodney football game has always been special.

Some rivalries develop because the schools have their own special niche, such as the Independent Conference teams, Delaware’s version of the Ivy League. Those teams occasionally step outside their cozy conference, but the intra-conference rivalry is why Tower Hill-Friends can be just as frenzied as Newark-Glasgow or Cape Henlopen-Indian River.

Sometimes a rivalry can take on mythic proportions, like the Ursuline-St. Elizabeth girls basketball games did when Khadjiah Rushdan played for the Vikings and Elena Delle Donne played for the Raiders. Those are two of the best players in Delaware history and their teams were always ranked No. 1 or No. 2, although it was really more like No. 1 and No. 1a. They packed the gym whenever they played each other and there was a special feeling to their games.

That’s what rivalries are all about, that special feeling. And you can’t really describe that feeling – you have to experience it. Fortunately, we get to experience that feeling all the time in Delaware, no matter what part of the state in which you live and no matter the size of the school for which you cheer.

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