When Ed Manlove first arrived at Woodbridge High, playoff berths were few and far between.
Manlove took over as the Blue Raiders football coach in time for the 2009 season. What followed were a pair of 3-7 seasons, then back-to-back years of 2-8.
But everything changed in 2013.
That’s when Woodbridge not only made the Division II state tournament, the Blue Raiders upset Tower Hill in the first round for the school’s first-ever playoff victory. Even though Woodbridge fell to St. Georges in the semifinals, Manlove knew it was just the beginning.
The seniors on that 2013 squad had set the foundation for something special.
“I told those kids, ‘We’re going to go on and win a state championship someday but just remember you are the ones who started this,’” Manlove recalled. “I wanted those kids to take pride in that season because they were the ones who got this program headed in the right direction.”
That state championship could come as early as Saturday. The Blue Raiders are playing in the state title game for the first time and will take on Wilmington Friends at 5:30 p.m. at Delaware Stadium.
Since a combined 10-30 record in Manlove’s first four seasons, Woodbridge has gone 32-13 over the last four seasons, including three trips to at least the state semifinals.
This year’s seniors have witnessed that transformation firsthand, beginning with their freshman year back in 2013.
“I believe that 2013 season brought life back into the program,” said senior lineman Shymere Vessels. “That’s what started it all. We believed in the potential of what Woodbridge could do.”
Current seniors like Vessels, Leah Styles, Blaize Rayford and Antwain Holden either started or were important bench pieces on the 2013 semifinal team.
“You knew they were going to take some lumps because they were so young,” Manlove said. “But they were just so good. They showed flashes of greatness that freshman year and here we are now.”
Manlove said they learned from 2013 seniors like Dajon Emory, Ricky Rayford and Anthony Jefferson plus junior quarterback Logan Wescott. Emory and Wescott went on to play Division I football with Emory currently on Arkansas State as a defensive end and Wescott as one of Delaware State’s starting defensive backs.
Those players still keep in touch with the program. Emory was in attendance at Woodbridge’s semifinal victory over Caravel last week and gave a postgame speech to the Blue Raiders.
“It was neat to see them and have a reunion,” Manlove said. “They’re our family. Our kids still look up to those guys. That group of kids were committed. They wanted to win and they wanted to succeed. That rubbed off on the younger guys.”
“It feels good to know that your community backs you up,” Styles said. “We want to be the team to do this for them.”
Styles said he has tried to mold himself to be a leader just like the class of 2013.
“We want to lead by example,” Styles said. “We want to become role models for the younger kids too and let them know we have their backs.”
“Those guys taught me either you go hard or you go home,” Vessels said. “Next week is never guaranteed. You always have to fight each week to get where you need to be.”
Reach staff writer Tim Mastro at firstname.lastname@example.org