Milford going back to North

Milford football head coach Shaun Strickland (center).  Delaware State News file photo

DOVER — The current school year is only two months old.

But already it looks as though the Henlopen Conference will undergo some big changes before next fall.

The addition of a 16th member — Dover’s Early College High School at DSU — means the Henlopen’s two divisions will be realigned starting in 2019.

ECHS@DSU’s entrance into the league means that Milford High will move to the Henlopen’s Northern Division with the bigger schools while the Hornets will join the South.

And that move will probably be felt most immediately in football.

Even though ECHS@DSU isn’t expected to field a varsity football program until 2021, the realignment will go into effect next fall, with eight teams (Caesar Rodney, Cape Henlopen, Dover, Milford, Polytech, Smyrna, Sussex Central and Sussex Tech) in the North and only six teams in the South (Delmar, Indian River, Lake Forest, Laurel, Seaford and Woodbridge).

Officially, though, there are eight member schools in each division. Sussex Academy is also a non-football playing member of the South.

Milford last played in the North for four years, from 2009-13. A year removed from winning their first DIAA Division II state title, the Bucs did go 5-1 in the division in 2009.

But Milford then went 1-17 in the North over the next three football seasons, losing its last 16 division contests. Current Bucs’ coach Shaun Strickland said the program will adjust.

“When you look at it, we’ve pretty much played three North games the last two years,” said the former CR player and assistant coach. “We’ve just got to mix a few other ones in there now. We’re not going to back down from a challenge. We look up to come up there and be competitive. Hopefully that shows on Friday nights.”

“We’ve been in this situation before,” said Milford athletic director Ryan Winkleblech. “We’re always on the bubble there with that. It’s nothing that hasn’t happened to us before.”

Like most schools, Milford already has its 2019 football schedule set up. Scheduling is done on a two-year cycle.

Along with playing the other seven North schools, the Bucs will also face Division II nonconference foes Indian River, Delaware Military and Lake Forest.

When he made the schedule, Winkleblech said there was still uncertainty about whether Milford would be in the North or South.

“I didn’t know where we would fall,” he said. “So I wanted some of our nonconference opponents to be good fits for us whether we were D-1 or D-2. Now, if we get to this point in two years and we definitely know we’re Division I, maybe we will look at things differently.”

Certainly having to fill only three nonconference dates will help some North schools. There are only a limited number of Division I programs in the state.

Three-time Division I state champion Smyrna is playing just nine games this season because it couldn’t find another nonconference opponent. With Middletown and Salesianum already on the ‘19 slate, the Eagles only have to fill one more date.

At the same time, having one less available nonconference date will make it more difficult for New Castle County schools to face downstate ones.

“With the addition of that other game, that’s six teams in the North that no longer have openings,” said Smyrna AD Bill Schultz. “There’s a trickle down effect.”

Of course, in the South, teams will now have to find five nonconference opponents for the next two seasons. But, with more options in the region, veteran Delmar High coach Dave Hearn doesn’t think it would be a problem.

He said the Wildcats already have nine games scheduled for next fall.

“Right now I haven’t heard anyone crying the blues about trying to get them filled,” said Hearn. “I think we’re going to be OK, (but) I can’t speak for everyone.”

The Henlopen realignment will have effects in other sports, as well.

For instance, in wrestling, where Milford has won six Division II dual-meet team titles including the last four, the Bucs will be moving up to Division I.

“It’s going to be an adjustment,” said Winklebelch. “But what can you do? The numbers are the numbers. It’s good that Milford is growing.”

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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