After late start, Smyrna hopes for fast finish

Senior point guard Izaiah Credle is a returning starter for a Smyrna squad that went 15-6 last winter. (Delaware State News file photo)

SMYRNA — By mid-December, most of the high school basketball teams in the state had started pre-season practice.

Smyrna High’s players, though, were waiting for clearance from their school district to get in the gym.

The Eagles admit they were feeling a little left behind.

“It definitely was frustrating to think about — that we would be behind as soon as we got started,” said senior forward Olumuyiwa Salako. “But I know the team that we have. I knew that it wouldn’t be a problem getting back up to speed.”

Sure enough, Smyrna, which didn’t start practicing until Dec. 21, thinks it’s ready to hit the court tonight. On the first big day of the Henlopen Conference basketball season, the Eagles play a 4:30 p.m. Henlopen North contest at Milford.

Coming off a 15-6 campaign, Smyrna likes the combination of veterans and young players that it will put on the floor this winter. The Eagles’ roster is an even mix of five seniors, four juniors, three sophomores and three freshmen.

Olumuylwa Salako, one of five seniors for the Eagles this season, was Smyrna’s leading rebounder a year ago. (Delaware State News file photo)

“We caught up pretty quickly,” said senior point guard Izaiah Credle. “I’m really excited. I get to play basketball again and get on the floor with my friends. It’s going to go pretty quick.”

Like the rest of the conference, Smyrna’s regular-season schedule is made up of 14 games, all against division opponents.

Despite the late start to pre-season, coach Andrew Mears likes what he’s seen so far from his squad.

“It’s a combination of senior leadership with some young talent,” he said. “And the young talent, we’re going to lean on for some scoring.

“It’s definitely an interesting bunch. It’s tricky as a coach but it makes for very rejuvenating practices.”

Coach Andrew Mears likes his team’s mix of veteran and younger players that open the season tonight. (Delaware State News file photo)

With the DIAA agreeing to an open tournament this season, every team already knows it can have a spot in the state tourney.

Last March, the Eagles made the state tournament for the fifth time in the last six years after bouncing back from an 8-12 season the year before.

The trouble was that No. 15 Smyrna ran into a really good St. Andrews squad that knocked off the Eagles, 66-57, in the tourney’s first round. The Cardinals reached the state semifinals before the tournament was stopped by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think we definitely had the team to go far in the playoffs,” said Salako. “At times we didn’t work the way we needed to or put ourselves in the right spot mentally when we needed to.”

Salako, the team’s leading rebounder, was an honorable mention All-Henlopen North pick last year. Besides Credle, part-time starters Elisha Gregory, a junior, and senior Robert Willey also return.

Cole Matthews and Aidan Sanchez, who took a break from basketball last winter, are the other seniors.

“We’re young,” said Credle. “We like to compete together. We’ve got to be leaders and just pick up the young guys. It’s a pretty good mix.”

“I love this team,” said Salako. “These are my guys. We all work together. It’s a family.

“One thing I like most, I feel like everybody on this team is a dog — we all have a dog mentality, especially defensively. It’s somebody who’s ready to do whatever they need to do to win.”

Credle agrees that it felt somewhat strange in December to not even be practicing yet.

“It felt weird because we always used to get in the gym in like November,” he said. “It felt a little weird not getting in the gym and getting shots up.”

While the season started slow, the Eagles know it’s how they finish that matters most. In a year in which there’s no heavy favorites in the Henlopen Conference, Smyrna doesn’t see any reason why it can’t be a contender.

“We’ve got some experience under our belts,” said Mears. “They’re ready to etch their names. Ultimately, all our goals start with competing for the North. And when you do that, and you find yourselves in a close run toward the end, then you know you’ve positioned yourself also for hopefully a tournament run.”

Free throws

Maryland’s Bayside Conference announced on Monday that it is canceling the winter sports season. … Henlopen boys’ and girls’ basketball teams will play the same opponent at the same gym this season. They will alternate between games starting at 4:30 and 7 p.m.