Reloaded Eagles eye Henlopen volleyball title again, host CR Thursday

Smyrna’s Kenley Cook. Delaware State News file photo

SMYRNA — When the Smyrna High volleyball program started 14 years ago, coach Danny Wandless set out to build something special.

“My goal was to build a team that could compete for a conference title every year and get into the state tournament,” Wandless said.
Fourteen years later, Wandless has done that.

The Eagles are a perennial contender for the Henlopen Conference championship and have made the state tournament every year since 2013.

Smyrna head volleyball coach Danny  Wandless. Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

This year is no different but shows how far Smyrna has come in 14 years. The Eagles graduated six players from last season’s conference championship team.

But they’ve reloaded and are one of two teams left who are unbeaten in Henlopen Conference Northern Division play. Those two teams meet tonight as Smyrna (4-0 Henlopen North, 6-4 overall) hosts Caesar Rodney (3-0 Henlopen North, 9-2 overall) with the Henlopen North title likely on the line.

“It’s a brand new team almost,” said senior outside hitter Kenley Cook. “We’ve had to work a lot but we’re doing well as a team right now. We trust each other and are slowly getting better.”

Senior libero Morgan Holman is the lone full-time starter left over from last season’s team who reached the second round of the state tournament. Holman was a first team All-Conference selection a year ago.

While the Eagles had to replace those six seniors, it’s not like the newcomers are inexperienced. It’s a group who has been playing together for seven years.

Cook and sophomore Sophia Basler have stepped in at outside hitter. Sophomore Hannah Osborne has taken over at setter while two more seniors Marqueisha Bennett and Isabelle Davis have also entered the starting lineup.

“We’re all like best friends and a lot of us grew up together so there’s a special bond,” Bennett said. “We vibe well. Everyone feeds off each other’s energy. We know each other’s strength and weakness. Everyone has been playing club together for a long time.”

“We’re all close and have played together for a long time,” Davis said. “We’ve all played club together or in middle school. We want to do our best to defend our title as conference champions.”

“We play for each other,” Holman said. “We don’t play for ourselves, we play for the team. We work as a unit and trust each other.”

Wandless said building a program is similar to climbing a ladder, one rung at a time. The next rung for the Eagles would be to get out of the second round of the state tournament.

And there’s a lot more infrastructure in place since Wandless started the volleyball program. Most of these girls came up through the middle school team and play club volleyball — two things that did not exist more than five years ago.

“We’re getting there,” Wandless said. “We have the middle school program in its fourth year and some girls are participating in summer volleyball. Our JV coaches do a good job of preparing people. The girls who come in do a really good job of understanding what we expect and where the bar is for what we want Smyrna volleyball to be.

Cook said when she played youth volleyball there were only two teams in the league. It has now grown to six teams.

“You can see the sport and the love for it growing throughout our community,” Cook said.

Smyrna’s four losses this year have come against upstate private schools (Archmere, St. Mark’s, Tower Hill and Wilmington Friends). Wandless said that schedule is by design since those are the teams who traditionally win the state championship.

“We schedule hard early on,” Wandless said. “There were several years when we got into the tournament that I felt while it was great getting into the tournament, but we had no business being on the court with some of the other teams. I needed to prepare these girls for the fact that there is life after our conference. We want to be able to play at the level of the upstate schools. We’re almost there.”

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