Smyrna football has shot for rare three-peat

NEW CASTLE — It might be tempting to think Smyrna High is getting a little ho-hum about all this.

After all, for many of the Eagles, this will mark their straight year playing for the DIAA Division I football state title.

But senior defensive end Hunter Moyer said nothing could be further from the truth.

“Even though we’ve been there three times, it’s just as shocking as the first time we went,” he said on Monday as the DIAA held its annual football championship week luncheon. “I’ve been a nervous wreck since we won.

“I laid in bed last night just staring at the ceiling. I can’t wait to play the game. I’m just nervous and ready to go.”

Certainly, the two-time defending state-champion Eagles (9-2) can accomplish something pretty special if can they can knock off top-seeded Middletown (11-0) on Saturday in the DIAA Division I state championship game. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. in Delaware Stadium.

Delmar (11-1) and Milford (10-2) play in the Division II title game at about 5:30 p.m.

Only three football programs in Delaware history have captured three straight state crowns: Newark (1997-2001) in Division I and Delmar (2000-2002) and Middletown (1997-99) in Division II.

Thirteen other times, schools have won back-to-back crowns without taking a third.

Delmar coach Dave Hearn had a talented group of seven sophomores when the Wildcats won the first of their titles in 2000. Five of them started both ways.

Those seven players formed the core of Delmar’s 22-senior class in 2002 — the biggest group of seniors Hearn can remember having.

“It was an unusually gifted football group,” he said. “And they came through all that together. They started talking ‘three-peat’ as sophomores. It wasn’t bragging but that was their goal all the way.”

Like Smyrna now, Hearn remembers the feeling of playing for a state title the third time being just as special.

“Even though they’d been through it, when it came time to walk out on that field, they were just as excited as if they’d never been there,” he said.

“It’s something special,” Hearn said about winning three in a row. “As they (the Eagles) are finding out, it’s very difficult. … not very many get in that category.”

Eagles’ coach Mike Judy certainly doesn’t want his players dwelling too much on their place in history right now. He wants them to think about it as just another game.

Smyrna head coach Mike Judy

There will be plenty of time to think about the big picture later.

“In the long history of our program, it’d be really cool to be able to get that done — for all the coaches and the teams that have come before us and the teams that will come after us,” said Judy. “But, for our guys, they’ve done everything they can to get to this point.

“Going into this game, it’d be really cool to get a three-peat. But we’re just focusing on trying to win a game. All that other stuff, that’s just icing on the cake if it happens.”

“It’d be awesome to put our names in the history books as well,” said Boyd. “And it’d be super amazing for our program considering that we went from having no state championships (in football) to possibly three in a row.”

Eagles in Unified finals

Smyrna will actually have two football teams playing for state titles on Saturday.

At 4 p.m. in Delaware Stadium, the Eagles will take on Newark Charter for the Unified Flag Football state crown.

Coach Andrew Mears, who led Smyrna’s boys’ basketball squad to the state title last March, says there’s a little less pressure in a contest like this, where students with and without disabilities team up.

“I just feel so fortunate to be a part of it,” said Mears. “There’s been a few games this season that created some drama or some last-minute plays that I don’t think some of them have been a part of.

“After seeing them through that experience, I’m sure this one’s going to be even more jaw-dropping and an even bigger stage. I’m sure it’s going to bring a lot of energy and emotion out in those kids.”

Strickland’s been here before

Saturday will mark the first time third-year coach Shaun Strickland has taken Milford to a state title game.

But the 34-year-old Caesar Rodney High grad made it to the state finals as a player.

In 1998, he was a sophomore lineman on the CR squad that fell to Newark, 22-6, in the Division I championship game.

“The feeling as a player is awesome,” said Strickland. “For us to have that experience when I was in high school is one of the reasons you get into coaching. You try to give that experience back to these kids.

“It was exciting, it was fun. At the end it’s bittersweet because you’re losing your group of guys. One way or the other, it ends.

“Those are the things you still look back and say, ‘Man, we were just one game away,’” he added. “It doesn’t really hit me as close as it used to. But it’s still one of those things, when you sit back and look at it, when you have that opportunity, you hate to let them slide.”

Hearn still going strong

Saturday’s Division II finals will mark the seventh time that Hearn has taken Delmar to a state championship game.

The Wildcats have won four of those contests.

Even after 27 seasons, though, the 61-year-old Hearn isn’t thinking about retirement just yet. He became the winningest football coach in Henlopen Conference history last season before notching his 200th career win with a 35-10 victory over Milford on Nov. 3.

Hearn’s record now stands at 203-89.

“With this kind of team, it’s been a lot of fun,” said Hearn. “It makes you feel younger again — although it’s a long season. Gosh, it feels like a long grind. There’s so much more going on in the summer with camps and all the things that we do now, it doesn’t end.”

Extra points

Smyrna star running back Will Knight remains verbally committed to Delaware but also seems to be getting interest from schools like Bowling Green and Old Dominion. “I would say I’m still making up my mind, just letting everything come to me,” Knight said on Monday. “I’m just enjoying the process.” … The last time there were four teams from below the canal in the football state title games was in 2008 when CR beat Sussex Central in Division II and Milford beat Laurel in Division II. … Tickets for Saturday’s championship games can be purchased online at https://statechamps.com/clients/diaa/. Tickets are $8, with a $1.50 surcharge if bought online. They are good for all three games but fans must buy a new ticket if they leave and come back. … The gates open at noon on Saturday.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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