‘We just never lost hope’: Eagles rallied by Wm. Penn after QB injury in 2015 semifinal

Will Knight, who went on to earn state Offensive Player of the Year honors, ran for 270 yards and scored all 30 of the Eagles’ points on four touchdown runs and three two-point conversions in last year's tournament victory over William Penn. (Delaware State News file photos)

Will Knight, who went on to earn state Offensive Player of the Year honors, ran for 270 yards and scored all 30 of the Eagles’ points on four touchdown runs and three two-point conversions in last year’s tournament victory over William Penn. (Delaware State News file photos)

SMYRNA — Mike Judy did what any coach would do in that situation.

The Smyrna High football coach told his players everything was going to be OK.

But that didn’t mean Judy believed it 100 percent.

How could he not be concerned? The Eagles were trailing William Penn 13-0 in last year’s DIAA Division I state semifinals and his standout quarterback, Nolan Henderson, just left the field on a stretcher.

“Obviously, what’s going on inside of you as a coach is a little different than what you’re going to show out there,” Judy admitted on Tuesday. “To say that we weren’t panicking. … I was worried. I was definitely worried.”

The fact that Smyrna completely changed gears offensively and still rallied for a 30-13 victory over the Colonials is a testament to the Eagles’ coaching staff and players.

Smyrna QB Nolan Henderson can remember listening to the rest of last year’s William Penn game as he was transported to the hospital and waited for tests to be done.

Smyrna QB Nolan Henderson can remember listening to the rest of last year’s William Penn game as he was transported to the hospital and waited for tests to be done.

Second-seeded Smyrna (10-0) is getting ready to face No. 3 William Penn (10-1) again in the Division I semifinals. The contest will be played on Saturday at 7:30 p.m., this time in Smyrna.

The way the Eagles rallied after Henderson’s neck injury in last year’s matchup with the Colonials still stands as a pivotal moment in Smyrna’s football history.

If they had lost the game, no one would have blamed the Eagles. Remember it was the first time Smyrna had ever played in the Division I state semifinals.

But then they would have been just another also-ran, another team that came up short after the wrong player got injured at the wrong time. Instead, Smyrna went on to capture the program’s first state championship in a season that will be remembered for a long time in the community.

Coach Mike Judy’s Smyrna Eagles are seeking their second straight Division I state title.

Coach Mike Judy’s Smyrna Eagles are seeking their second straight Division I state title.

“We just never lost hope,” said junior running back Will Knight. “We always go by ‘fight through adversity always.’ We don’t have any hesitation, we just go after it.

“I always think about it,” he said about the win over William Penn. “Actually, I was very surprised. … not surprised, but it was a blessing that we came out on top and were able to do it without our quarterback.”

Knight ended up being the hero.

For much of the remainder of that game, Smyrna simply snapped it directly to the talented sophomore running back and let him and the offensive line do the rest. Knight, who went on to earn state Offensive Player of the Year honors, ran for 270 yards and scored all 30 of the Eagles’ points on four touchdown runs and three two-point conversions.

If there was one moment that really made Smyrna believe, it came when Knight broke off a 99-yard TD run in the third quarter. The Carter brothers, Jerren and Terren, opened up a hole on the left side and Knight sprinted through it.

“I remember just being in the open field,” said Knight. “I was always told, don’t get tackled by one person, especially in the open field. I had to take it to the house.”

“It was huge,” said Judy. “It was the thing that, if you needed something to propel you. … that was it. We came out, backed up to our end zone with no quarterback and they find a way to score.

“It was a dead-line run, right down the middle of the field, he just outran everybody. Ninety-nine yards later. … the place went crazy. For an amazing player with great blocking, to make it happen, it gave us life.”

The touchdown and the two-point conversion gave Smyrna the lead for good at 14-13.

Of course, the best news from that day was that Henderson didn’t suffer any serious injuries. After being taken to Christiana Hospital for x-rays, he was back at William Penn by the end of the game.

And he was fine to play in Smyrna’s state championship game win over Salesianum the following week.

Now a senior, Henderson can remember listening to the rest of the William Penn game as he was transported to the hospital and waited for tests to be done.

“I was definitely nervous listening to it,” he said. “Every time he scored I just smiled. It was cool.”

That victory gave Henderson a new appreciation for his teammates, especially Knight. He’s watched the video of the game a few times since then.

“I always knew he was talented,” said Henderson. “The whole team just showed me what they had inside and the heart they had. It was really big to have them come through for me.”

Extra points

Delaware 105.9-FM will broadcast both the Caravel-Woodbridge game on Friday night and the Smyrna-William Penn matchup on Saturday. Both contests start at 7:30 p.m. … Tickets for the semifinals are $6. … McKean will face Newark Charter in the first official DIAA Unified football state finals on Dec. 3 at Delaware Stadium. The contest will be played between the Division I and II state title contests.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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