High school mascot origins unmasked


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The Dover High School Senator mascot stands next to Caesar Rodney High School’s mascots, Caesar and Spirit. Many of Downstate Delaware’s current mascots came about when high schools consolidated in the late 1960s. (Delaware State News/Matt Bittle)

DOVER — Panthers and Spartans and Senators, oh my!

From Smyrna to Delmar, the 14 schools in the Henlopen Conference — the 14 public high schools in Kent and Sussex counties — have nicknames covering a wide array of people and animals. Some of them are a close fit with the school, with a mascot tied to the area. Others are seemingly unrelated, the reason for their selection simply being the students liked the name. After all, who has seen a Spartan or a buccaneer in Delaware?

Most of the mascots have been around for more than 45 years, meaning it can be difficult to track down the origin.

Some of the nicknames are extremely common across the nation, while others are much rarer. According to mascotdb.com, Downstate schools have four of the five most common nicknames among all high schools and colleges, with teams named after eagles, bulldogs, panthers and wildcats. Only a squad called the Tigers is missing.

The Dover area is home to schools bearing two of the most uncommon nicknames, both of which have obvious historical ties.

Caesar Rodney, namesake of the Caesar Rodney School District and its high school, famously rode from Dover to Philadelphia on July 2, 1776, to vote in the Continental Congress on the issue of independence. He voted in favor of breaking from Great Britain, and two days later, the Declaration of Independence was ratified.

Caesar Rodney High School now bears the nickname of Riders, a mascot shared by only two other high schools, according to mascotdb.com. The high school absorbed the Dover Air Force Base school, whose teams were dubbed the Falcons, around 1980.

Similarly, the Dover Senators carry a nickname with some historical basis. Dover has been the capital of the state since 1777, and the high school sits just a few miles from Legislative Hall, home of the General Assembly.

No other nicknames are as obvious.

Indian River High School was formed from the consolidation of three schools: Lord Baltimore, John M. Clayton and Selbyville, district spokesman David Maull said.

Instead of being named the Eagles, Bears or Rebels, like its predecessors, Indian River became the Indians.

It was one of several schools created in or around 1969, when the state pursued a policy of pushing downstate schools to merge with one another, according to Bud Hitchens.

“They thought by putting the schools together and making them more close to the size of the upstate (ones), they could merge them together that way and I guess increase funding and maybe a better education for the students,” Mr. Hitchens, the secretary of the Henlopen Conference, said.

The state law that ordered the merging was known as the School Re-Organization Act, and consolidation took place despite some initial resistance from schools.

About 9 miles away sits Sussex Central High School. The Golden Knights, as the school’s teams are known, took their name from the Georgetown Golden Knights, one of the predecessors to Sussex Central. Georgetown merged with the Millsboro Red Devils to form Sussex Central in 1969.

Up in Kent County, the Polytech Panthers take their nickname from a survey sent to Kent County freshmen before the school became a full-time high school in 1991. Given five choices, students picked the mascot, as well as the colors and slogan, school administrator Macky Trabaudo said. The name also provides alliteration, helping it roll off the tongue.

Fellow vo-tech Sussex Tech picked the Ravens name when the school shifted to full time in 1991, in similar fashion as Polytech. Because the Baltimore Ravens had not yet come into existence, the name was not as common then as it is now.

District secretary Bobbi Albright said the name carried connotations of being an underdog, something school supporters liked. The black and silver colors were borrowed from the Oakland Raiders, she said.

To the west of Sussex Tech sits Woodbridge High School, which was formed from a merger of Bridgeville and Greenwood. A new nickname and color scheme was created and voted on by students to replace the Bridgeville Mustangs and the Greenwood Foresters, neither of which used blue. According to assistant district superintendent Jason Cameron, the team was originally just called the Raiders but became associated with the main uniform color and so the nickname grew to reflect that.

Lake Forest replaced Harrington (Lions) and Felton (Green Devils) in 1969, like many other downstate schools. The Spartan nickname was submitted by a student from Felton High School. The team originally had a more frightening mascot, but it was replaced with a more cartoonish one to avoid scaring children.

Similarly, the Cape Henlopen Vikings took over from the Milton Warriors, the Rehoboth Beach Seahawks and the Lewes Pirates when the three schools were consolidated. The Viking nickname was selected by the first graduating class. Like Seahawks and Pirates, the name has obvious connotations to water, fitting for a school just two miles from the Delaware Bay.

It is also worth noting Lewes was first founded by Dutch settlers in the 1600s. While the Netherlands may not have a direct connection to Vikings, who came from nearby Scandinavia, the Netherlands is also often associated with water because so much of the country sits at or below sea level.

The Seaford Blue Jays, meanwhile, can trace their nickname to before the consolidation efforts of the late 1960s.

“The Blue Jay became the school mascot sometime after 1939. According to a former student from that time, he and a friend had begun an underground newspaper for students,” district Director of Human Resources and Public Information Duncan Smith said in an email.

“They were not censored by the principal, but he began to take exception to what was being written. The solution was to create an official school newspaper and a contest was held to name the paper. The winning entry was ‘The Blue Jay.’ Unfortunately, no one knows why the name was entered or selected, but the first issue of the paper was created during the 1937-38 school year. The name was so popular that it was adopted by the athletic teams a few years later. The rest is Blue Jay history.”

The origin of the Delmar Wildcats and Milford Buccaneers is not known, and officials representing the Smyrna Eagles and Laurel Bulldogs could not be reached for comment. All four schools were unaffected by consolidation and can likely date their nicknames to before 1969.

Mr. Hitchens, from the Henlopen Conference, speculated the Milford Buccaneers and Smyrna Eagles can trace their names to nearby places. The Mispillion River runs through Milford, and eagles can be seen at the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Smyrna.

Nicknames, mascots and logos are often a source of great pride for supporters, who point to them as being unique, powerful or tied to the region. Many are ferocious and dangerous, conveying a sense of superiority on the field and the court, although not all teams are named after predators.

Team quality may not represent the mascots’ fierceness, but if all the schools’ representatives were to engage in a hypothetical fight, unlikely as it may be, one of the Golden Knights, Spartans and Buccaneers seems likely to come out on top. Sorry, Seaford.

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