That perfect season

GEORGETOWN — Has it really been 30 years ago?

Yes, indeed, it has.

Three decades have passed since Sussex Central High’s baseball team went 21-0 in 1989.

The Golden Knights were a perfect collection of live arms, big bats and aggressive base stealers, all driven by a love of the game.

Now they’re teachers and dads, police officers and business owners, husbands, financial planners, country club members, farmers, youth league coaches, insurance agents and more.

How far back was it when Sussex Central won the state title? Consider that:

• The first smartphone was five years away in 1989 and public websites didn’t exist.

• Stamps cost 25 cents each, gasoline was $1 a gallon.

• Singer Taylor Swift was born that year, along with footballers Cam Newton and Rob Gronkowski.

Nowadays most of the lineup resides within an hour’s drive of their Georgetown Little League Complex home field behind a strip mall on Market Street, with retired U.S. Coast Guard admiral and team outfielder Jeff Clark as the outlier.

Retired head coach Woody Long lives a quiet rural existence near Bridgeville, while assistants Ralph Harrison (Robinson & Harrison Poultry Co. owner) and Jimmy Hudson (Indian River School District board member) are nearby as well.

According to then-center fielder Andy Harrison (Ralph’s son) the amazing feat rarely comes up during social gatherings — the guys are approaching 50 years old now and adult stuff matters far more. The next reunion is scheduled for late May at former second baseman Jeff Tidwell’s home.

“It’s always business as usual when we get together, which means having a good time,” Andy Harrison said. “It’s about creating new memories, right?

“It’s always been easy to be with those guys and when we get together there’s mostly talk about things going on in our lives now, not then.”

Thanks to the Internet, ex-power hitting first baseman Shannon Argo said the overwhelming run doesn’t seem long ago.

“It’s easy to stay in touch (with teammates) through social media and you can see what’s happening in their lives,” he said. “Because of that everything seems to stay current, so it’s not really about the memories.”

To ex-outfielder Tim Slade, now a Cape Henlopen High vice principal, “It feels like it’s been a long time since then.

“I found my old uniform in the attic recently and tried it on and wasn’t very successful.”

Coach Long regularly communicates with several of his former players and savors each conversation.

“I’m proud of every one of them because they’ve done well, been productive and have nice families,” he said. “I was proud to be associated with them then and I’m proud of them now.”

Georgetown, Millsboro unite

The 17-member roster was a 9-8 split of Georgetown and Millsboro kids who battled each other during Little League all-star play before teaming up as a prep juggernaut.

Assistant Coach Harrison knew something special was coming before the rivals combined forces.

“I remembered my dad saying he couldn’t wait until everyone was on one team together,” Andy Harrison said.

The way outfielder Todd Mumford recalled it, “We were kids who came from a lot of different places in school — some were cool kids, others weren’t. Some took honors classes, others didn’t. When it came time to play ball, though, we were all together.”

The perfect run was three years in the making, as coaches decided to keep several members of the future juggernaut on varsity as sophomores.

“We caught a lot of guff over that because we cut a lot of seniors,” Long said. “I believed the younger bunch could develop into something really special if they stayed together, so that’s what we did.”

The hunch turned visionary. Long earned state coach of the year honors, and enjoys memories of being razzed by fans after a base-running mishap at third base he supposedly caused.

“One of them yelled ‘Long you’re not only fat, you’re stupid, too,’ ” he recalled with a broad smile and chuckle. “They were the most loyal and passionate fans ever, but maybe to a fault occasionally.”

Andy Harrison is still moved by what his coach later identified as the two most momentous times in his life — serving in Vietnam and coaching the championship team.

“To hear him mention us in the same sentence as (serving his country in a war) is extremely humbling,” he said.

Before beginning a career as an educator and head coach, Long served a one-year tour of duty in the Mekong Delta, seeing combat as a corporal in the 9th Infantry Division.

“When you get older a few things stick with you and most don’t,” Long said. “If someone asked me what I did in 1977 I’d draw a total blank.

“The one year in Vietnam was so intense that I could tell you where I was and what I did in November of that year. The same thing could be said about the ’89 team because I spent so much time with them.”

The coaches each had distinct personalities that mixed well “with a lot of different dynamics that come with any group of kids that age,” Slade said.

“Coach Hudson was serious and made sure we had the fundamentals down. Coach Woody made you feel very relaxed. He’d tell you all these crazy stories that got your attention and then you’d go out and try to do anything to keep him happy.

“I had known Coach Harrison since early in Little League and he was always very supportive from the start.”

Making the varsity

Take-charge catcher Jamie Evans transferred in from Wicomico High in Salisbury, Maryland, and other players arrived from junior varsity to join a team that just missed the playoffs in 1988 with a final game loss to nemesis Seaford.

The next year, Central earned Delaware’s first unbeaten season in 13 years and became unforgettable.

The squad’s smallest player — 150-pound pitcher Mark Sammons — won 11 straight games with pinpoint accuracy, and fellow righty Mark Briggs went 9-0, including the final decision in a 7-0 rout of William Penn in the title game at Wesley College in early June.

Pounding away at the plate were shortstop Scott Illian (.494 batting average), Briggs (.467), Tidwell (.414), Mumford (.375), Harrison (.375) and third baseman Tony Oliphant (.372). Sussex Central stole 66 bases and occasionally made outs when other teams wouldn’t have run at all.

“When we took the field we had an attitude that nobody could beat us,” Briggs said. “We were prepared for any situation that could come up.”

Mumford set then-playoffs record with four RBIs against Middletown and tied another mark with three doubles overall. Tidwell was a combined 8-for-11 with three walks and three steals during the postseason.

“Sometimes the ball suddenly looks like a watermelon and you just get on a streak,” said Tidwell, the left-handed hitting second baseman known for his humility and being the lone junior starter.

“It just happened to be my time.”

At the end, the hometown heroes were saluted with victory parades and several congratulatory letters, including one from then-Gov. Michael N. Castle.

Players regularly arrived before school to take swings in an indoor cage and often resumed until dusk after two-hour practices. Teaching AP history at the time, Long recalled often arriving at school at 7 a.m. with the back door open and the bats cracking.

“We were all out there way longer than we should have been, when we should have been home studying or spending time with our families,” Andy Harrison said. “We’d hit balls all night if we could, but the coaches eventually ordered us to go home.”

Also, in February prior to the season, several players attended a Doyle’s Baseball Camp in Florida just prior to the opening of spring practice.

The extra efforts were worth it.

“You’ll never top that in your life — when you’re coaching boys that work so hard and see it all pay off with the biggest prize of them all,” Long said.

Big-time players

The Golden Knights were an imposing bunch. Nine players stood 6-feet or taller, topped by 250-pound Bucknell-bound football star Argo. The size didn’t go unnoticed by at least one opposing coach on his way to a loss.

“He told me that not only are they big, they’re really good baseball players, too,” Long said.

The program was talent rich at the time. Backups Clark, Jonathan Joines and Mark Abbott could have started for any other team in the state, Long said, with Matt Mariner and Chad Rogers adding to an unrivaled quality bench.

That quality forced Long to increase his roster instead of cutting some of the ballplayers.

“I had typically kept the bare minimum but that year I didn’t want hear the parents complain,” Long said.

One slip during the season would have likely dropped Central from Delaware Baseball Hall of Fame induction to merely a fantastic high school squad.

It never happened, though one bad inning at the wrong time could have changed that.

While routs were common, the road also included land mines with potential to blow everything up, especially a four-game, season-opening trip to South Carolina and ace Caesar Rodney pitcher Matt Bloch (who later pitched at Division I Austin Peay University) near the end.

Central topped the Riders 3-2 to win the program’s first Henlopen Conference title since 1982, then eliminated CR with an 5-4 decision in the state semifinals. Some of the Knights even traveled north to check Bloch out on the mound prior to facing him.

Sophomore Jeff Hudson, who had rarely pitched during the regular season, allowed one hit in the last 4 1/3 innings after Central trailed CR 4-0 early in the second showdown.

Oh, and the junior varsity team lost just one game that season and propelled Central to the state semifinals in 1990.

South Carolina trip

After a 10-vehicle caravan transporting 50 players, coaches and family members arrived in South Carolina in late March, Central promptly knocked off four local teams (including one ranked nationally by USA Today) that went 86-12 the previous season and won three state championships,

Following two games won by a combined three runs, Sussex Central rolled past its final two foes by a 21-3 score.

Heading south into the road trip, the coach hoped for a 2-2 record when his guys traveled back to Delaware, if they competed hard enough. The journey was arranged through Long’s connections with fellow U.S. Sports Academy pal Roger Finley, then head coach at Palmetto High.

“There’s a difference between getting beat and getting embarrassed,” Long said of trepidations before taking the field.

Harrison recalled Long waiting in the hotel parking lot after he and some teammates broke whatever the curfew was and lived it up with some of their local foes.

“He had this stern look that I’ll never forget, his arms were crossed and was every bit the disciplinarian when we returned,” he said.

Truth be told, though, Central’s head coach was giddy himself.

“You can’t blame them,” he said. “I was as high as they were because they had just beaten three state champions.

“I understood and put on an act because the parents were there, but I knew exactly what they were doing. I thought it was nice that they connected with some of the guys they competed against.

“I raised the devil with them but fully understood why they were ready to party a bit.”

Back in Delaware, most games were mostly non-competitive — nine of SC’s final 12 victories were by seven runs or more, including the two Caesar Rodney thrillers.

Nine Knights played college baseball: Tidwell, at Mary Washington; Briggs, Sammons, Hudson and Joines, Delaware Technical Community College, Oliphant, Christopher Newport; Harrison, Virginia Wesleyan; Illian, Wilmington; Evans, Eckerd.

Additionally, Argo attended Bucknell on a football scholarship and Slade joined the University of Delaware basketball program.

Staff writer Craig Anderson can be reached at 741-8296 or canderson@newszap.com.

Editor’s note: Craig Anderson covered the state championship team in his early journalism career.

Where are they now?

Whereabouts of players on Sussex Central baseball’s 1989 title team:

Mark Abbbott, Sussex Tech teacher

Shannon Argo, Blue Hen Organics part-owner

Mark Briggs, Sussex County farmer

Jeff Clark, retired U.S. Coast Guard admiral

Jamie Evans, Baseball Velocity owner, XO Beanery and Bites, Toronto Blue Jays throwing consultant

Shawn Hall, State Farm Insurance agent

Jeff Hudson, Delaware State Police

Scott Illian, Department of Correction officer

Jonathan Joines WBOC advertising executive

Matt Mariner, AD-Art Sign Company general manager

Todd Mumford, Delaware Probation and Parole

Tony Oliphant, Tony Oliphant Lawn Care owner

Andy Harrison, Robinson & Harrisson Poultry Co. sales

Chad Rogers, Ocean City Greene Turtle manager

Mark Sammons, Indian River School District custodian

Tim Slade, Cape Henlopen High vice principal

Jeff Tidwell, Rehoboth Beach financial planner

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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