Smyrna wrestling family celebrates 600th win

SMYRNA — The first time Kurt Howell visited Smyrna High, he was public enemy No. 1.

Howell was an undefeated wrestler for Newark High and the Smyrna fans were hopeful they would see the first loss of his career.

Everyone in attendance was heckling him, old ladies were calling him names and the crowd lived and died with each moment of the match.

And Howell loved every second of it. He didn’t experience that type of atmosphere too often at Newark.

“I was like, ‘Man, I want this,’” Howell recalls.

Smyrna wrestling by .

Buddy Lloyd, Mike Dulin, Ron Eby, Clay Lloyd, David Morrison and Kurt Howell from left to right.

Years later, Howell has exactly that.

He’s become a key part of the Eagle wrestling tradition in his 12th year as head coach. Howell is just the most recent of a line of six coaches over the last 50 years, all of whom have never had a losing season.

That adds up to a lot of wins. With a 66-3 victory over Sussex Tech on Jan. 13, the Eagles earned the program’s 600th dual-meet win of all-time.

Smyrna’s coaches believe it to be the first time a team from Delaware has achieved that milestone.

Interestingly enough, Howell was coaching Indian River when Smyrna defeated the Indians for win No. 400. Howell learned by reading the newspaper the next day it was also the 32nd consecutive victory the Eagles had over Indian River.

“I remember being (unhappy),” Howell said with a laugh. “I couldn’t wait for the first time we beat them because I was going to make sure that every paper knew Indian River beat Smyrna.”

Howell ended up joining Smyrna soon after and is now the second-winningest coach in program history with 129, behind only Mike Dulin’s 182.

The path toward those 600 victories, now up to 601, started long before Howell arrived, though.

‘The Godfather’

Ron Eby was 21 days away from leaving for Vietnam and desperately looking for a job.

Eby was drafted into the military upon graduation from West Chester University. However teachers were deferred from military service so Eby, a Lancaster, Pa. native, knew if he could land a teaching position he would be able to stay stateside.

He tried applying to all the schools in his area but wasn’t able to land anything. That’s when the letter came in the mail.

“It said, ‘S-M-Y-R-N-A’ and I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce it,” Eby said. “We’re only 75 miles away in Lancaster but I had never heard of Smyrna, Delaware.”

In the letter was an offer for a physical education position in the Smyrna district. Eby traveled down and was hired on the spot. He also accepted the wrestling coach job in time for the start of the 1964-1965 season.

Eby had no idea how much he would fall in love with the small town he had never heard of.

“I was praying for some job to not go to Vietnam,” Eby said. “I’ve been here ever since. It’s the greatest place in the world.”

Eby coached at Smyrna until 1977 and compiled an overall record of 123-20-3 while going 90-5 in the Henlopen Conference. Even after his stepped aside, his influence still reigns over the wrestling program.

The next four coaches — Buddy Lloyd (1978-1983), Dulin (1984-1998), Clay Lloyd (1999-2003) and David Morrison (2004), Eby’s nephew, were all former Smyrna wrestlers.

Dulin says the fact that the Eagles were able to maintain their success for all these years goes back to what Eby started.

“It’s the respect we have for Mr. Eby,” Dulin said. “He built this, he started this and he put us on the map. None of us ever want to see that go away. We work as hard as we can to ensure that this wrestling tradition stays alive for as long as it can.”

Just because he stopped coaching didn’t mean Eby wouldn’t be at all of Smyrna’s matches. He was a constant fixture along the back wall of the old gym and now he sits with the Lloyds, Dulin and Morrison for Eagle home meets in their more modern gym.

And he still wants to be kept in the loop.

When Howell joined as the first non-Smyrna grad to be head coach since Eby, Dulin sent Howell an email with the subject line “Mr. Eby.”

“It said, ‘Just so you know, make sure you run through what you’re doing with Mr. Eby because he likes to know before big matches,’” Howell said. “It’s nice that someone cares that much about the sport that they want to hear from me before and after big dual meets.”

“He’s like the Godfather and you better make sure you explain to the Godfather what’s going on,” Howell added. “He’s the biggest fan and he’ll go everywhere. He schedules his winter stuff around the wrestling schedule. He cares so much.”

This year marks Eby’s 50th year of service in the Smyrna district. He has spent the last 10 on the school board.

“I never wanted to leave,” Eby said. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”

Humble beginnings

Smyrna’s first year with a wrestling program was 1961.

There were no home matches, no uniforms, no buses and no mats. From looking at the class of 1961’s yearbook, Smyrna knows the team’s record was 1-4. What the Eagle faithful does not know is who the win was against — it was either Caesar Rodney or Harrington. To this day, it remains the only victory not officially recorded in the Smyrna recordbook.

In Eby’s first season (1964-1965) the Eagles went 4-4 with three individual conference champions.

“I recall having all these strong farm boys who were eager but lacked some of the skills,” Eby said. “From there we started to build. We did very well all those years.”

The 1967-1968 season is regarded as one of the turning points for Eby. He guided the Eagles to an 8-1-1 record with a historic result in the opening dual meet.

In those days Georgetown High (which would later become Sussex Central High) was the wrestling powerhouse. It had won 56-straight matches coming into 1968.

The Eagles broke that streak with a 24-19 victory. It started the process of Smyrna becoming one of the most dominant programs the state had ever seen.

In 1970 Smyrna began a 35-match winning streak that would last until the final contest of 1972. Eby was honored with the State Coach of the Year Award two out of those three seasons.

The 1970 season also saw the Eagles break the record for most place-winners in the invidiual state meet. This was when there was only 12 weight classes and only the top-three wrestlers from the conference championships could qualify for states.

Smyrna had eight wrestlers place at states, including four champions, one second place and three thirds. That record stood until Milford broke it in the 1980s.

“What an amazement that year was,” Eby said. “Nobody could come out and compete with us. The worst wrestler on my team lost two matches that year. We totally dominated everyone.”

An investment in youth

Buddy Lloyd met Eby when he was just starting to wrestle while in junior high.

When he got to Smyrna he tried out for the team as a freshman, made it and wrestled for Eby for four seasons. Lloyd was one of those individual state champions in 1970, part of the team that knocked off Georgetown in 1968 and a winner of Smyrna’s Outstanding Wrestler Award in 1969.

Still, he wondered what would happen if a wrestler became involved before junior high.

“I didn’t get exposed to wrestling at all until I was in seventh grade,” Lloyd said. “I saw there were kids that were getting excited about what we were doing as a team (at Smyrna) so there was an interest for younger kids to get involved.”

After an injury cut short Lloyd’s collegiate career, he returned to Smyrna and joined Eby’s staff.

In 1972, Lloyd starter the Smyrna Little Wrestlers program. It began in a partnership with the town as a recreational program.

It cost $5 for six weeks with an emphasis on teaching the basics of wrestling. There were takedown tournaments each Saturday with an end-of-the-year tournament where medals were awarded.

It was the first wrestling program geared toward youths in the state of Delaware. In a couple of years, Lloyd estimated there were about 160 kids in attendance on Saturday mornings with some of his high school wrestlers coming in to teach.

As Little Wrestlers became bigger and bigger, Dulin took over when Lloyd was hired as Eby’s replacement at Smyrna. Dulin ended up running the program for 18 years.

“It’s been the big stepping stone for all these kids,” Dulin said. “Buddy pioneered it. They get so much exposure that, by the time they get to middle school and high school, they have so much more experience that it gives them a big edge.”

To this day, Smyrna’s dominance on the mat is considered a direct result of its standout youth-feeder program.

“I’d argue that Little League (baseball and softball) doesn’t even have that type of program,” Morrison said. “Little Wrestlers is the model youth feeder program in the state to be frank.”

Growing the tradition

As Dulin sits on the bleachers in Smyrna’s wrestling room, he calmly explains that he was as animated as they come while on the sidelines.

When he coached from 1984-1998 he loved to play to the crowd. Typically that was always a packed house that would respond to Dulin’s arm-waving and shouts for more noise.

He had a good reason for acting like that.

“The fans were responsible for us winning quite a few matches in that gym,” Dulin said. “They got some of those kids so pumped up. I don’t even know the words to describe the feeling that fanbase gave you.”

While Dulin was the coach, Delaware began using the current dual-meet tournament in 1993 to decide the state team champions. Under Dulin the Eagles made the Division II championship match the first six years and won three of the first four titles.

What Dulin remembers most about his time at the helm is how he was able to affect individuals.

One of his favorite memories is when Smyrna’s Harry Blendt faced George Cintron, who was ranked No. 1 in the nation, at the Beast of the East. Cintron had just won the equally prestigious Ironman Tournament a week before, but Blendt defeated Cintron via major decision in the Beast final.

“All of the major colleges who were there to watch Cintron went to Harry,” Dulin recalled.

The next year at the Beast, Blendt lost to Bruce Kelly of St. Mark’s, who dropped down into his weight class. A few weeks later Smyrna was facing the Spartans in a dual meet.

“So I went to Harry and said, ‘Do you want to step up in weight and face Bruce Kelly again?’” Dulin says as a smile forms. “He said, ‘Yeah,’ so I told him not to tell anyone. So we told the team about a week before and then Harry goes out and pins him.

“I was blessed with great kids who would run through a wall for me,” Dulin added. “They made those 15 years great.”

All in the family

Since his father was the founder of Smyrna Little Wrestlers, Clay Lloyd naturally tagged along from a very young age.

Except he didn’t like it. So he quit.

It wasn’t until the seventh grade when he decided to give wrestling another shot. This time, it felt different.

“I thank the good Lord to this day for my dad because not once did he ever pressure me to wrestle,” Clay Lloyd said. “He let me do it on my terms. I think because it was on my terms and I didn’t feel any pressure, I fell in love with the sport.”

Like Lloyd, Morrison — Eby’s nephew — was exposed to wrestling because of his family. They both ended up wrestling for Smyrna. Morrison was the Eagles’ Most Outstanding Wrestler in 1989 while Lloyd was on the team in 1993 who won the inaugural state dual meet championship.

Lloyd got his chance at coaching when Dulin stepped down. In his first season, the Eagles went 9-8, which he pointed out almost felt like a losing record.

But the freshmen from Lloyd’s first year stuck around. When they were seniors in 2003, they won the state duals.

“Seeing those kids who committed to me and worked hard to come out on top like that was the most rewarding experience,” Lloyd said. “The kids that stayed and worked really hard got to reap the rewards.”

Lloyd and Morrison represent what has become a strong foundation for the Smyrna program. The families that stick around often produce second-generation and now even third-generation Eagle wrestlers.

Dulin points out on this year’s team Tony Wuest, a defending individual state champion, is the son of one of his wrestlers, Ron Wuest.

“It makes you feel old,” Dulin laughs.

Last season’s state championship team had two sets of twins and two other sets of brothers on it.

“Smyrna is a very small but dense pocket of people who love this sport,” Morrison said. “Then you have people like Rob Eby and Buddy Lloyd, people look up to those types of men. The community loves this sport and loves those guys.”

“If you’re from Smyrna, you don’t have to wrestle,” Clay Lloyd said. “But if you do, you’re part of a tradition and part of a family.”

As strong as ever

Smyrna hasn’t lost to a dual meet to a Delaware opponent since the 2012 Division I title match to Caesar Rodney.

Still, Howell is quick to say he isn’t invincible. In his first season (2005), he made a key decision by bumping a wrestler up in the final dual meet of the regular season against St. Mark’s. It didn’t work out and led to a run of kids getting pinned as Smyrna lost by 40 points.

Three days later was the state duals. Smyrna was seeded second in Division II and Hodgson was the top seed. Hodgson had defeated St. Mark’s by 25 during the regular season and looked to be favored over the Eagles.

Sure enough the two teams met during the championship and Howell had another tough decision on his hands. He said he could have shied away from making another risky move but he didn’t.

He bumped two of his wrestlers up a weight class and rolled the dice with a junior varsity wrestler in the first match. Before the title bout started, Howell noticed his junior varsity kid was breathing heavily, so he gave him one of his best speeches.

“I went up to him and said, ‘If you win this match, the dual meet is over, they can’t win if you win this match’” Howell says. “Sure enough he goes out and pulls off an upset. Then we just rolled, 56-6.”

That junior varsity kid’s name? Matt Boyles, who ended up as Howell’s first individual state champion wrestler two years later.

Plenty of individual honors followed. Smyrna has had at least one state champion every year since 2011. In 2013 the Eagles had five champions, their highest mark of all-time. They came close to matching that a year ago with four.

While the individual titles are nice, Howell prefers the dual meets. Smyrna has won the last three team duals and the Eagles are favored again this season. Howell’s resume includes a dual meet win over McDonogh (Md.) last season when McDonogh was nationally-ranked, another first for the Smyrna program.

“The dual meets are so fun,” Howell said. “Especially the big dual meets when you’re measuring lineups four weeks ahead of time. I love those.”

Even though he didn’t start out as a Smyrna guy, Howell has been adopted by this community.

He said he always felt welcomed and never any pressure to live up to the legacy Eby started.

“I love wrestling and people here are thankful of people who give their time to the sport,” Howell said. “I really didn’t think I needed to do anything else than care about the kids and care about the program.”

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