NEW CASTLE — People forget sometimes, said Mark DelPercio, just how far back this rivalry really goes.
Like there are people in Middletown who still talk about Smyrna High winning the Henlopen Conference Northern title in 1969 — despite the fact that the Cavaliers beat the Eagles that football season.
Middletown and Smyrna had both been members of the Diamond State Conference before that. But when the new Henlopen Conference was formed in ‘69, the Cavs were left out.
“There are some guys who are pretty upset — ‘The only reason you won the North is because you kicked us out of the conference,’” said DelPercio, the current Middletown coach.
So imagine just how excited central Delaware fans are to have the Eagles and Cavs playing arguably the biggest football game the two rivals have ever played against each other.
Top-seeded Middletown (11-0) and No. 2 Smyrna (11-0) will square off on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Delaware Stadium in the DIAA Division I state championship game.
Not only is it the first time the two old Harvest Bowl rivals met with a state title on the line but it’s the first time they’ve played in football since 2012.
Not that the Eagles and Cavs been avoiding each other lately.
This summer, for instance, Smyrna and Middletown played in a pair of 7-on-7 league title games before holding a well-attended, hotly-contested scrimmage the week before the regular season started. Middletown won the scrimmage on a last-minute scoring drive.
“I don’t know about anybody else but I feel like we’ve played them three times this year,” said Smyrna linebacker Josh Hutchinson. “I feel we know Middletown, they know us. We’re well acquainted.
“You could consider it a (Middletown) win if you want,” he said about the scrimmage. “They played hard, we played hard. They just happened to have the most points on the board at the end. I respect that.”
“I can definitely tell it is a big rivalry and something that is important to the town,” said Eagles quarterback Nolan Henderson. “Everyone is talking about it and how it used to be. It’s exciting to bring it back. When we scrimmaged them it felt like a big-time game. The stakes felt high even though it was just a scrimmage.”
Smyrna and Middletown have already decided to renew the Harvest Bowl, starting next season. They’ll play in Middletown on Sept. 8, 2017.
DelPercio, who played for Middletown in the first official Harvest Bowl game in 1985, said the Cavs still have the trophy in their display case. It will have to wait until next September to be awarded again, though.
Then again, the winner of Saturday’s contest will get an even more-coveted trophy.
Smyrna coach Mike Judy likes the fact that two schools below the C&D Canal will get to decide the Division I state crown.
“In a 15-mile radius, there’s two of the top Division I big-school football teams in the state fighting it out.” he said. “That’s amazing. I’m sure they (Middletown) get sick of … what you hear from a lot of people with ties to the north — that nothing good happens below the canal.”
Like old times
Darwin Manges admits it was a tough loss to swallow.
Indeed, it was only a couple years ago that the former Dover High football coach finally watched the tape of the Senators’ 28-24 loss to Newark in the 2001 Division I state finals.
“I couldn’t bring myself to do it,” said Manges. “But I sat down and watched it. It brought back a lot of memories.
“You go through and see you see the numbers on the jerseys and you remember those kids for what they did and how good they were. It was a special time for us.”
Now the athletic director at Woodbridge High, Manges is getting to relive some of those emotions with the top-seeded Blue Raiders (12-0) facing No. 5 Wilmington Friends (11-1) in the Division II state finals. The contest is slated for 5:30 p.m. in Delaware Stadium.
Like with his Dover squad in 2001, Manges said it takes a special group of players to reach a state title game.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “The kids are just a great group and that’s the similaritiy I draw with the team I had back in Dover.
“Those were a great bunch of kids and I’ll never forget them and everything they did for me,” Manges added.
Delaware football officials are mourning the death of referee Michael Abbatiello, who collapsed and died of a heart attack during the Woodbridge-Caravel Division II state semifinals on Friday night.
An Ocean View resident since 2002, the 75-year-old New York native had been a high school official in both football and baseball for 40 years. He was also a U.S. Marine, serving during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
“Mike was a great official,” said Smyrna coach Mike Judy. “We had him several times as the white hat (head referee). He was the type of guy who would take control of the game but not in a demeaning way. You never felt cheated with him.
“He allowed the coaches to coach, the players to play and the referees to do their jobs. It was a shame what happened, I really feel for his family and friends and the referee association.”
Tommie Neubauer, the executive director of the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association, is a former football referee. He said the crew working Friday’s game showed a great deal of fortitude being able to finish the contest after Abbatiello collapsed.
Dover’s Pete Celiberti, who was helping with the first-down markers, took over as head official for the rest of the game.
“It’s not something you expect,” said Neubauer. “They (the officials) just put it out of their minds for that time. But then, at the end of the game, you could see all the emotion drain out of them.”
Visitation for Abbatiello will be held from 2-4 and 6-8 p.m. on Wednesday at the Ocean View Chapel of Melson Funeral Services, 38040 Muddy Neck Rd., Ocean View, DE 19970. A funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. on Thursday at Mariner’s Bethel United Methodist Church, 81 Central Ave., Ocean View, DE 19970.
Woodbridge is the only one of the current seven teams in the Henlopen Southern Division that hasn’t won a Division II state title in football … Tickets, which are $8, are good for all three games on Saturday, including the Unified flag football finals. … Radio station Delaware 105.9-FM (Delaware1059.com) will broadcast the Woodbridge-Friends game. … WDEL will broadcast both championship games.
Reach sports editor Andy Walter at firstname.lastname@example.org