From the Sports Editor: Eagles enjoy hoop glory — ‘A lot of hard work paid off’

Going to school on a Monday morning probably wouldn’t make many people’s list of fun things to do.

But walking the halls after winning a state championship on Saturday was pretty cool for Smyrna High’s boys’ basketball team on Monday.

“It was nice to see the kids and the staff congratulate us,” said Eagles’ coach Andrew Mears. “All my basketball players made it to school today, which was nice. It’s easy to get in school when you know you’re going to be getting so many pats on the back.”

It had been two decades since a downstate boys’ hoop team knew what that feeling was like.

Before Smyrna battled past Caravel, 61-53, for the title on Saturday, the last Henlopen Conference program to win a state crown in the sport was Seaford in 1997.

A 2003 Smyrna grad who played basketball for the Eagles, coach Andrew Mears knows how difficult it’s been for downstate to break through in the boys hoop tournament. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

A 2003 Smyrna grad who played basketball for the Eagles, the 32-year-old Mears knows how difficult it’s been for downstate to break through.

“I’ve seen some good players come through this building,” said Mears, who’s coached at Smyrna for 10 years, including the last four as head coach. “I’ve seen this program go from an almost very smalltown-type of feel to one of the bigger ones around here.

“It’s definitely fun. Seeing the kids excited, feeling the energy around the school after the big weekend, is definitely uplifting — it’s motivating but yet it’s also humbling. I’m kind of not sure what to do next. I’m expecting my boys to come in to practice. … But it’s definitely rewarding. A lot of hard work paid off.”

Like many successful high school teams lately, the Eagles also got some help from players coming to the burgeoning Smyrna area.

That list would be topped by Zubi Nwankwo, the 7-foot-2 center who moved from Kentucky in the off-season.

Smyrna’s Jaymeir Garnett scores two of his game-high 28 points in Saturday’s state title victory over Caravel.

But Smyrna also picked up defensive specialist Iyair Hinson-Purnell, a former Delaware resident who played at Philadelphia’s Monsignor Bonner last winter, while getting back guard Zion Cole, a Smyrna student who briefly played for St. Thomas More as a junior before returning.

Despite the mix of old and new, the Eagles were able to build chemistry as the season went along.

“It all came together mostly for the fact that we had so many unselfish players,” said Mears. “With some scrimmages and Slam Dunk to the Beach, we got tested early.

“Some of that adversity with some skillful players and some unselfish basketball kind of created that chemistry early on and allowed us to build on it throughout the year.”

As things stand now, the Eagles should be considered a contender to win the title again next year. Their three top players — Nwankwo, Caleb Matthews and Jaymeir Garnett — are all underclassmen.

There are always rumors about players transferring in a sport like basketball, though. So it’s not surprising that there’s already talk about who might be coming or going at Smyrna.

Only two downstate programs have won back-to-back boys’ basketball state championships: Cape Henlopen (1975-76) and Indian River (1980-81).

It wasn’t easy winning Smyrna’s first state title this winter so Mears knows it won’t be easy going for another one next season.

“You never know,” said Mears. “I feel like we live in a time where these kids have more options than they did before. I hope all the families and kids make the decisions that are best for them.

“But I’m just going to try to stay in control of what I can control. As along as they’re Smyrna kids, I’m going to teach them and coach them. … I try to teach my kids, control what you can control and everything else will fall into place.”

Not so slow

Late in Saturday’s title game, Caravel’s student section started chanting ‘Slower, lower; slower, lower. …’ at its Smyrna counterpart.

The ‘insult,’ though, rang rather hollow, first of all, because Caravel is located just 26 miles north of Smyrna.

But it also didn’t make much sense because this has been a pretty good school year for downstate schools so far.

Henlopen teams have now won state titles in Division I and II football, Division I and II wrestling and field hockey, along with boys’ basketball.

Considering there are twice as many high schools in New Castle County as there are in Kent and Sussex combined, that’s not too bad.

By the numbers

Here’s some numbers to consider from the just-completed high school basketball season:

• Smyrna’s Matthews sank his last 45 free throws. He was 107-for-118 from the foul line this season, including 61-for-64 in the fourth quarter.

• Henlopen Conference schools are now 8-17 all-time in boys’ basketball state championship games.

• Twelve of the current 15 members of the Henlopen have played in the boys’ basketball state finals. The only ones that haven’t reached the title game yet are Laurel, Sussex Tech and newcomer Sussex Academy.

• Nwankwo, Smyrna’s 7-foot-2 center, blocked 15 shots and grabbed 35 rebounds in the Eagles’ last three state tourney games.

• Four Catholic Conference schools (Ursuline, St. Mark’s. St. Elizabeth and Padua) have won 32 of the 46 state titles in girls’ basketball. That includes 17 for Ursuline, which has won three in a row.

• Smyrna’s boys’ team allowed 50 points or more in just five of the 24 games it played this season.

The Eagles surrendered a season-high 64 in a 64-54 loss to Sanford at Slam Dunk to the Beach while giving up an average of just 40.8 points per contest.

“That’s where we wanted to hang our hat each and every night,” said Mears. “We have guys who know how to score. But scoring doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if you don’t know how to defend.

“Ultimately, as long as we know how to play defense, it didn’t matter what the scheme was. … Holding some teams to their season low, that was kind of motivational for our guys. I thought our guys bought into that.”

NFL scouts eye Baynard

Wesley College running back Jamar Baynard got to work out for NFL scouts at the University of Delaware’s Pro Day on Thursday.

The Middletown High grad took part in a number of drills, including the 40-yard dash, bench press, three-cone drill and several other combine drills in front of scouts representing 13 NFL teams.

“It was such a blessing to even be able to participate in an NFL Pro Day,” said Baynard. “I gave it everything I had so I’m just hoping for an opportunity somewhere in the future.”

Former Wesley quarterback Joe Callahan took part in UD’s Pro Day last spring before being signed by the Packers.

Baynard accumulated 5,499 yards of total offense and 59 touchdowns in his college career.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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