Plenty of rematches on tap in football semifinals

Every team wants to be playing better by the end of the season than it was at the beginning.

Masen Wilson (22) and Erik Larson (5) make a tackle against Middletown in the first week of the high school football season. State News file photo

Smyrna High’s football team just seems to be especially good at it lately.

In both 2015 and ‘17, the Eagles avenged early-season losses with wins in the state tournament.

That will be Smyrna’s goal again today when the third-seeded Eagles (9-2) go to No. 2 Middletown (9-1) for a DIAA Division I state semifinal showdown. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.

Think of it as Harvest Bowl II after Middletown beat Smyrna, 17-6, in the season opener on Sept. 6.

The Smyrna-Middletown rematch is one of three state semifinal contests on tap tonight. In Division II, top-seeded Woodbridge (10-1) hosts No. 6 Caravel (9-2) at 7 p.m. with No. 2 Delmar (9-2) hosting No. 4 Howard (10-1) at 7:30 p.m.

In the other Division I semifinal, No. 4 Sussex Central (9-2) plays at top-seeded Hodgson (10-0) on Saturday at noon.

Smyrna brings a nine-game winning streak into its matchup with the Cavaliers. Middletown’s only loss was to Hodgson in the third game of the season.

“The beauty of the ones that we have been in — with the rematches — is that we have typically played these teams early in the season,” said Eagles’ coach Mike Judy. “So much has changed on both sides. The evolution of both teams during the nine or 10 weeks since we’ve played is going to be a pretty decent difference.

“You look at the first film, but really you’ve got to watch the latest happenings with that team.”

Smyrna’s six-point total in the first game against Middletown marked the only time it was held under 18 points this season. Indeed, the Eagles have put up at 42 points in their last four games, including last week’s 52-32 state quarterfinal win over Salesianum.

The Cavs have registered five shutouts this fall.

Judy just hopes that Smyrna has improved a good deal in the last three months. While the Eagles have lost all three regular-season meetings with Middletown since 2016, they are 2-0 against the Cavs in the state tourney.

“I just want them to fight every day at practice trying to get better,” Judy said about his players. “If you do that, at the end of every week, you can honestly look at yourself in the mirror and say, hey, we got better.

“Is it enough to beat a team? That’s to be determined. But I think, if you take that approach, it gives your kids a chance to win the week before they win the game. It’s kind of a growth mindset.”

The Sussex Central-Hodgson game is also a rematch — from last season.

In 2018, the Golden Knights opened the season with a 26-6 loss at Hodgson. They then won 12 games in a row to capture the program’s first state crown.

But Central coach John Wells knows his team has changed a lot since the last time it faced the Silver Eagles, who are 20-1 over the last two years.

“We had some great seniors last year and we’ve had some injuries this year,” said Wells. “But I give our kids credit. The guys that we have back are playing good ball, they’re playing hard, they’re playing together.

“I’m not saying it’s a surprise. I thought we had talent back. But to put it together again, to be in the semifinals — one win away from going to the finals again … the kids are goal-oriented and they’re getting at their goals.”

In Division II, there’s another rematch from the first week of the season. Woodbridge opened its schedule with a 28-7 victory over Caravel.

The Blue Raiders are in the midst of the most successful era in the program’s history. They are playing in the state tournament for the fifth straight year, with two state championships in the last three seasons.

Caravel has played in eight state finals but none since 2012.

Delmar hasn’t faced Howard since beating the Wildcats, 35-28, in the first round of the 2009 state tournament. Veteran Delmar coach Dave Hearn, though, knows enough about Howard to expect a difficult challenge tonight.

Howard has become a perennial contender in Division II. This year’s the Wildcats’ only loss was to Hodgson.

“It seems like, by the end of the year, they’re always playing well,” said Hearn. “It just never fails. I don’t care how they start, they always finish well and that’s usually the mark of a pretty well-coached team.”

Delmar, which is trying to reach the state finals for the second time in three years and for the 10th time overall, knows it can’t take anything for granted just because it’s the higher seed. 

“We’ve got about 18 seniors playing,” said Hearn. “So they’ve been through a state final already and won one and they’ve been near it last year. So they’ve been around and they know the route to get there. Each round gets progressively tougher and the opponent fights that much harder and won’t let go.”

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