School officials promote ‘new era’ for Polytech High athletic programs

Polytech’s Donald Rawley carries the ball during the Panthers’ football game against Caesar Rodney in September. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

WOODSIDE — Momentum toward leaving the Henlopen Conference steadily increased for at least two months.

Polytech High’s football program was crippled by injuries early on, and the Panthers final two games were canceled for health and safety purposes.

Tuesday night’s unanimous Board of Education vote to exit the Henlopen Conference in all sports after next school year nixed other options — stay in completely or try to relocate the football program only.

Concern mounted after the football season kicked off in September, and the board sought more information from administrators on opt out possibilities.

During a public presentation Tuesday, Director of Operations Nicholas Johnson reported on exploring the New Castle County-based Diamond State Athletic Conference’s process for entry, and scheduling dates. DSAC dues were $575 compared to $1,300 in the Henlopen Conference.

DSAC members include Wilmington’s Conrad Schools of Science, Delaware Military Academy and Charter School of Wilmington, Claymont’s Archmere Academy, Clayton’s First State Military Academy, Bear’s Red Lion Christian Academy, Middletown’s MOT Charter School and Newark Charter School.

A commitment to the DSAC (comprised of charter and private schools) must be made by Aug. 15, 2020, for inclusion in the 2021-22 school year. Other options will be considered as well.

“This decision does not immediately withdraw our athletic programs from the conference and affords the entire Polytech community the opportunity to shape our future,” Mr. Johnson said.

“Working together, we can usher in a new era of Polytech athletics.”

Petitions requesting that the football program only leave were unsuccessful several times since 2008, Mr. Johnson said. Three quarters of the conference schools must approve to grant the petition, Henlopen executive secretary Bud Hitchens said.

Mr. Johnson said a petition to Henlopen schools in March 2017 “did not receive the necessary support from conference members to opt out in football only.

“Additionally, opting out would require us to receive re-approval every two years.”

Also this fall, Polytech coaches were called on to provide feedback, thoughts and concerns about the ongoing issues leading up to this week’s vote, Mr. Johnson said.

On Friday, George Eilers, who is handling athletic director duties, referred all questions to Mr. Johnson, as did other Polytech coaches.

Some at odds

Based on public comments and social media posts, some in the Polytech community were at odds with the upcoming departure’s all-inclusive affect on the sports programs. Acknowledging football’s reasonable concerns, many pointed to competitive success of others — the field hockey squad made the state semifinals this fall, boys’ soccer qualified for the state tournament, the boys’ cross country and volleyball squads had winning records — when questioning the upcoming departure for all. Other winter and spring teams have achieved significant success as well.

Some Facebook comments included:

•“What other sports have dwindling numbers? This decision was solely based on the football program. That was the only thing they considered at the board meeting.”

•“This is going to effect marching band, cheerleaders, majorettes. All other sports teams have been doing exceptional.”

•“The board did not solicit parent and athlete feedback or consideration. … The board made their decision before the meeting and the disrespect they showed the non-football coaches, athletes and parents of the community was heartbreaking …”

According to Mr. Johnson, “This news has been received with mixed emotions within our school community, which is understandable.

“This was a difficult decision for the board to make. However, the community also recognizes that the decision is an opportunity to shape our own future and usher in a new era for Polytech athletics, given the ability for those impacted to be part of the solution and serve on the committee (that will explore potential future paths).”

In a news release, the school district said the decision “was based on concerns around the overall health and safety of its student-athletes and low participation rates across various athletic programs.

“Board members determined that a change was required to provide safer, better opportunities for all student-athletes.”

The Panthers finished the football season with 16 active varsity players, and 21 suffered season-ending or serious injuries, Mr. Johnson reported to the board. The program began mid-August practice with 58 student-athletes overall, including 22 freshmen. The injuries were higher than past years and described as “catastrophic” to the ongoing season’s viability.

Meeting in public

Mr. Johnson’s presentation to the school board came before an unusually large crowd at the board meeting this week. The public gathering lasted more than two hours and allowed attendees up to five minutes to address the board.

Polytech will leave the Henlopen completely after the 2020-21 school year. As long as enrollment dictates, Polytech will remain a larger school Division I athletic program.

The board tasked administrators with forming a committee to evaluate future options. Mr. Johnson said the group “will include parents, student-athletes, coaches, staff, the athletic director, a high school administrator and a district administrator. Our goal is to have a fair and diverse representation of all key stakeholders across our athletic programs to provide their input and feedback into this process.”

Applications to serve on the committee will be taken through Nov. 30. The aim is to meet for the first time by mid-December.

Said Board of Education President W. Duane Hammond in a news release, “While this was a difficult decision to make, the board believes that exiting the Henlopen North Athletic Conference and exploring a different approach is in the best interests of our students and families.”

Polytech Superintendent Dr. Amelia Hodges was quoted in a news release saying “Our district leadership team appreciates the Board of Education’s careful consideration of this issue, and we respect and support its decision.

“Now, we will turn our attention to organizing a committee that is representative of our entire school community to usher in a new era of Polytech Athletics.”

‘Community decision’

The school scheduled a Senior Recognition Night for Friday, Nov. 8, involving all football, majorette, band and cheer programs, according to a story posted on the district’s website.

Reading from a prepared statement he said was designed to avoid rambling at the board meeting, long-time football, track and lacrosse coach Robert Gilmore — a “Proud Panther” since the school opened in 1991, he said — expressed support for leaving the Henlopen in order to preserve “The magic of Friday night lights.”

Describing the move as a “community decision” Mr. Gilmore pointed to the band members, performers, cheerleaders, ROTC members and alumni who gather for the football games and pointed to the “limited success” of the home team facing Henlopen North competition.

Despite the uncertainty of switching course Mr. Gilmore said that Polytech has made important similar decisions and “we have consistently pushed on facing the unknown and finding success.”

Polytech’s football team went 9-41 from 2015-2019, which included a 6-4 record in 2017. The other four teams went a combined 3-37, many of the losses in blowout fashion.

In 2006, a Polytech petition to remain independent in football was denied and the program returned to the Henlopen North. The Panthers had earned back to back 7-3 records competing against mostly Division II teams with smaller school enrollments, and competed for six years outside the conference.

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