Any state championship is special, something to be treasured by everyone involved – the players, the coaches, the parents, the alumni, the fans. Still, some have an extra meaning to them, and the winners of this year’s boys and girls basketball titles certainly qualify as that.
The reason is obvious: Everyone loves the underdog. Certainly, the Eagles got plenty of mileage out of that during their goose-bumpy run to the Super Bowl. They not only accepted that underdog, us-against-the-world role, they embraced it and made it a rallying cry, thereby turning a negative into a positive.
And that’s exactly what St. Elizabeth High did during their edge-of-your-seat run through the boys DIAA state tournament. The ninth-ranked Vikings capped that run in spectacular fashion when they upset No. 3 seed Smyrna in the championship game. That final victory came against the defending state champions and a team that had won 22 games this season, so St. E certainly didn’t steal its first championship in the 51-year-old history of the boys state tournament.
And that’s also what Conrad’s girls team did just two days after that, when the Red Wolves beat Caravel 49-46 for its first state championship of any kind since the “modern era” of Delaware high school sports began in 1967 with the first boys basketball tournament. Of course, the Red Wolves – nee’ Indians – were demoted, so to speak, when their high school was turned into a middle school in late 1970s before returning to high school status in 2007.
But that made them even bigger underdogs and this state championship even more special. It doesn’t even matter that Conrad had won 20 games before Monday night’s title game or that the Red Wolves were the No. 3 seed, which means they already had earned plenty of respect this season. It doesn’t even matter that Conrad had already beaten Caravel 58-47 during the regular season, which should have made them the favorites, not the underdogs.
Perception is everything, and the fact that neither the St. Elizabeth boys or Conrad anything had ever won a state championship made them appear to be big-time underdogs. That’s the way it works sometimes. After all, the Eagles had the best record in the NFL last season and were the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs and also had home-field advantage for two of their three playoff games (three-for-three if you count the decidedly pro-Eagles crowd at the Super Bowl), and they were still the underdogs in every postseason game they played.
That’s why it was so much fun to see two small schools with no pedigree beat bigger, more established programs — Smyrna was defending boys champion and was ranked No. 1 in the state for most of the season and Caravel had played in the girls championship game four times in the last six years. So, there was a reason they were the favorites in the title games.
Plus, it’s nice to see some new blood at the top of the leaderboard. I mean, it was also fun watching Ursuline and Sanford win six of the last seven girls basketball titles and it’s impressive to see the dynasties built by Salesianum in soccer and swimming and Cape Henlopen in girls lacrosse. Of course, it was also impressive watching New England win all of those Super Bowls, which is one of the things that made the Eagles’ victory over them more meaningful than if it had come against Jacksonville.
However, as enjoyable as it was watching St. Elizabeth and Conrad, neither of those unexpected championships qualifies as the greatest Cinderella story in Delaware high school basketball history. That will always be our version of Hoosiers. Back in 1971 – when there was still a big geographical and philosophical divide between New Castle County and Lower, Slower Delaware – the mighty mites of Milford High stunned big-city P.S. du Pont 63-43 in the state championship game, after upsetting Salesianum and Wilmington High in the quarter- and semi-finals.
But there is one thing all three teams share in common – they weren’t supposed to win, and when they did win they made history. And that’s something all of those players – even the ones from Milford, who are now grandfathers in their mid-60s – will remember and cherish forever.