Nobody likes sports dynasties, unless, of course, you’re a member of the ruling class. But if you’re a team that’s always on the outside, then it becomes like a pitchers’ duel in baseball – a lot of fun for the pitchers and catchers, but boring for everybody else.
That’s one reason why the DIAA football playoffs have been so compelling the last couple of years. We all know the teams that have dominated football in this state for decades, including teams with at least six championships since the tournament started in 1971 – Newark (10 titles), William Penn (nine), Salesianum (seven), Middletown (seven) and Delmar (six). Even though a match-up of those long-time playoff contenders can be interesting, it’s still business as usual. But when a long-time playoff observer bursts onto the scene, like Smyrna did last year, then there’s an added layer of excitement.
For one thing, it gives the fans of those teams – and quite often they’re long-suffering fans – something to cheer about. And those fans never know if they’ll get to cheer that long or that loudly ever again. Since 1971, nine schools have won only one football championship, three in Division I and six in Division II. Those teams include Smyrna, which won its first title last year and is back to try for a repeat on Saturday in the Division I championship game against perennial power Middletown, and Wilmington Friends, which won its only state crown in 1984 and has finally returned to the Division II final. The Quakers will play Woodbridge, which has never won a football championship.
The other one-and-done schools in Division I are Wilmington High — which won the very first state championship in ’71, when there was only one division — and Cape Henlopen (1979). The other Division II schools with just one, lonely trophy are Mount Pleasant (1981), Sussex Tech (1993), Lake Forest (1994), Milford (2008) and Howard (2015).
And, of course, there are of those schools who have never won it all, like Brandywine and Alexis I. DuPont and McKean and all of the Independent Conference schools except Friends (of course, Sanford has those nine basketball championships to keep them warm at night).
That’s why it’s so nice to see Friends and Woodbridge playing for the Division II championship this year and why it was so nice to see Smyrna win its first title last year. It’s the same reason why NCAA basketball is so much more interesting than NCAA football. In basketball, even a small school like Villanova (total enrollment of 9,594) can beat a big school like North Carolina (total enrollment of 29,084). In football, you know it’s always going to come down to just a handful of mostly big-time state schools like Alabama and Ohio State and Washington and Oklahoma, and no matter how many games Western Michigan (currently 12-0) wins, it’ll never get a shot at a national championship.
Well, teams like Woodbridge and Friends don’t get their shot very often and that’s the reason this game is so important to them and so interesting for us. If you play or root for Sallies you always figure that you’ve got next year to win a title, but these one-shot wonders have no such assurances. And when it’s a team like Woodbridge, two entire towns will shut down during the championship game and most of Bridgeville and Greenwood will be either sitting in the bleachers at Delaware Stadium or sitting at home listening to the game on radio.
No matter who wins the Division II championship game, one of those schools will finally fill that empty spot in their trophy case, and nobody knows if they’ll ever get that chance again.
Wilmington Friends Football Photos courtesy Larry Kuhn