Smyrna boys basketball team adjusts after two superb seasons

Smyrna coach Andrew Mears discusses strategy with his players during a timeout last season. “With the turnover in players, it’s really about them finding their own identity,” he said. Delaware State News file photos

SMYRNA — Most of Smyrna High’s marquee boys’ basketball players from the last couple seasons are gone.

But the Eagles’ reputation remains.

And that means that Smyrna’s opponents are still going to want to knock off the Eagles after losing to them the past two seasons.

“I told our guys, we have a target on our back — and for most of them it’s an inherited target,” said Smyrna coach Andrew Mears. “Regardless if we consider ourselves the favorite or the underdog, we’re going to run into the other team’s best shot.”

It comes with the territory for Smyrna after going to back-to-back state championship games, winning two straight Henlopen Conference titles and posting a combined 45-6 record over the last two seasons.

“I think everybody thinks we’re not going to be a good team,” said Smyrna junior Nahshon Sylvester. “We did lose some big pieces. We are a young team but I think we’re doing good, though.”

The reality is, however, that the Eagles return just five varsity players, all who really only played supporting roles last winter.

That inexperience has shown up so far as Smyrna takes a 1-2 record into today’s Henlopen North matchup with Sussex Tech (1-1). Tipoff is slated for 7 p.m. at Smyrna.

Mears thinks there’s still a lot to like about this year’s squad. It’s just that no one would confuse it with the team the Eagles put on the floor the past couple years.

“With the turnover in players, it’s really about them finding their own identity,” said Mears. “I reference last year often because we’re not far removed from it. But, at the same, time, we have our own characteristics. This group has its own strengths and weaknesses.

“It’s really a brand-new team as a whole.”

It’s not like Smyrna has played all that poorly so far. The Eagles lost to Cape Henlopen, 53-51, after squandering a 13-point lead, and fell just 63-59 to Dover.

Smyrna senior Jakir Hampton is sidelined right now with a knee injury he suffered in the Dover game.

Smyrna finally broke through with a 68-48 win at Sussex Central on Friday night.

Against the Golden Knights, junior Nahshon Sylvester (19 points), senior Ron Jackson Jackson (15) and junior Izaiah Credle (12) all scored in double figures.

“I think everybody thinks we’re not going to be a good team,” said Sylvester. “We did lose some big pieces. We are a young team but I think we’re doing good, though.”

Sylvester started about half of the Eagles’ games last year while senior Jakir Hampton started a handful. But Hampton is sidelined right now with a knee injury he suffered in the Dover game.

Smyrna’s only other returning players are Jackson, junior Olumuyiwa Salako and junior Brandon Smith. Hampton, Jackson and Kavii Woodruff are the only three seniors on a roster that includes nine juniors.

Two big men who would be seniors this season — Jaymeir Garnett and Nalik Veasley-Johnson — are no longer part of the program, Garnett is still a student at Smyrna while Veasley-Johnson moved back to North Carolina.

Guard Caleb Matthews, who was last season’s state Player of the Year, graduated and is playing a year at Mount Zion Prep near Baltimore. He signed with NCAA Division I NJIT.

One of Matthews’ teammates at Mount Zion is Azubuike Nwankwo, the 7-footer who played on Smyrna’s state championship team in 2017.

As much as Mears knows this year’s players have to forge their own identity, he also hopes they learned things from some of those great players who have come through the program.

“Watching all of them play, it taught me a lot — how to play the game better,” said Sylvester.

“Caleb put four years into this program,” said Mears. “He left his mark for years to come — kind of as a standard but. at the same time, as a way for our kids to learn and to see it through. how they contribute to a program for the four years that they’re here. It’s something to reference.

“Sometimes the best teaching is through example. A lot of these guys got to play with them and they saw the hard work they put in. It’s now their turn to establish themselves.”

Free throws

Smyrna is playing in the Governor’s Challenge tournament at the Wicomico, Md. Civic Center just after Christmas. The Eagles are slated to face St. Peter’s Boys’ (N.Y.) High on Dec. 26 at 5 p.m. and Olympic (N.C.) High on Dec. 28 at 8:30 p.m. … Smyrna also has non-conference games with Caravel, Howard, St. Georges, Salesianum, Milford and William Penn.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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