Football fever in Smyrna: Excitement spreads for high school’s winning team

Smyrna football fans celebrate a Eagles touchdown in the second quarter during the Division l semi-finals against Wm. Penn at Smyrna on Saturday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Smyrna football fans celebrate a Eagles touchdown in the second quarter during the Division l semi-finals against Wm. Penn at Smyrna on Saturday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

SMYRNA — The success that Smyrna High School’s football team has experienced the past couple of years has become so big that it has spilled out and into the communities that Smyrna School District serves.

The popularity of the Eagles — and not the ones from Philadelphia — was evident when the grandstands at Charles V. Williams Stadium were nearly full almost an hour prior to kick-off for Saturday night’s semifinal matchup between Smyrna and visiting William Penn in the Division I state football tournament.

The host Eagles won 48-0 to advance to the championship game for the second straight year.

It wasn’t just the Smyrna marching band, known as “The Regiment of Red,” that was clad in bright red on this night. It was virtually the entire Eagles’ home grandstand, along with a couple hundred people lining the fences.

Folks from all around Smyrna and Clayton have clasped onto a team that captured the Division I state championship for the first time last season and has now won 20 games in a row since falling to Salesianum, 76-56, in September 2015.

Smyrna football fans celebrate a Eagles touchdown in the first quarter during the Division l semi-finals against Wm. Penn at Smyrna on Saturday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Smyrna football fans celebrate a Eagles touchdown in the first quarter during the Division l semi-finals against Wm. Penn at Smyrna on Saturday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“Without a doubt, the excitement of the game, the excitement of a Friday night football game, I think it just builds a culture,” said Bill Schultz, Smyrna’s athletic director. “It’s becoming more of a tradition and not just an exception.”

Fans were greeted by Kay Conaway after walking into the stadium on Saturday night as she was selling Smyrna Eagles merchandise at the school’s stand that’s usually manned by DECA students.

Smyrna football cheerleader Hailey Sullenberger celebrates a Eagles touchdown in the first quarter during the Division l semi-finals against Wm. Penn at Smyrna on Saturday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Smyrna football cheerleader Hailey Sullenberger celebrates a Eagles touchdown in the first quarter during the Division l semi-finals against Wm. Penn at Smyrna on Saturday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“We have sold more apparel during last season and up to now, for sure,” Mrs. Conaway said. “Winning doesn’t hurt business at all, and this is the students’ school store.

“Mrs. Conway’s working (Saturday) so the students can watch the game. I check the scoreboard from time to time, though.”

Across the way, concession stand workers are busy doling out hotdogs, popcorn and hot cocoa through the windows near a banner that read “Welcome to Eagles’ Territory.”

“Our hot dogs are always good, but it’s nice that we’ve been winning,” said Kim Lattomus, who was working the concession stand Saturday. “It definitely makes it more exciting — and busy.”

You see, it hasn’t always been this way for the Eagles. Smyrna was always mostly known as being a wrestling school due to its tremendous winning tradition on the mats during the winter.

The culture has changed progressively ever since Mike Judy became the school’s football coach. The Eagles went 2-8 four seasons ago and were just 5-5 as recently as three seasons ago.

Then, last year, football fever at Smyrna reached a fever pitch when the Eagles eked out a 32-26 overtime victory over Salesianum to capture the school’s first football championship. It hasn’t stopped yet.

Smyrna rolled to a 10-0 record and a second straight Henlopen Conference Northern Division title this season while averaging 54.8 points per game and surrendering 17.8 points per contest.

It all begins at the top — and coach Judy. He played on the offensive line at Wesley College from 1997 until 2000 and received a great deal of his football acumen from head coach Mike Drass and his staff.

“Coach Drass had a huge influence on me not just from a football perspective, but from a life perspective,” Mr. Judy said. “He does so much behind the scenes for his players. He reaches out to his former guys and never forgets a face. And of course his record speaks for itself.”

Eddie Kaiser was on Smyrna’s football team when Coach Judy took over the reins for the Eagles. Now, his younger brother Jake suits up for the team.
“I think a lot of the success has to do with the whole coaching change,” Mr. Kaiser said.

He went on to add how impressive it is when the entire community comes out to support a team.

“You can see the stands right now, the whole community’s out here,” said Mr. Kaiser. “They back up everybody; they back up this whole entire team.

“In the state championship game last year [at the University of Delaware] you had the whole town – Smyrna and Clayton – up there. The town backs up this team and it’s great for the program to see them winning.”

When all of these ingredients come together, it seems as if the cheerleaders cheer a little louder, the band marches with a little higher step and 40-degree nights huddled under a blanket in a grandstand aren’t quite so cold.

“It’s fun to cheer with all your friends while they’re winning,” said Bari Phillips, a sophomore Eagles cheerleader. “It’s a good feeling.

“Hopefully, we’ll win [Saturday night] and it’ll spread spirit throughout the school the whole week. The football team gets a lot of love and support, not just from the cheerleaders, but from everybody in the community.”

Prior to last season, Smyrna had not been in a state championship football game since it lost to Glasgow 38-30 in the Division II final in 1975.

Now it appears as if it might become an annual tradition.

“Last year it was a brave new world for us, trying to figure it out as we went along,” said coach Judy.

There’s nothing new or brave about it this fall – Right now, Smyrna is on top of the world.

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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