From the sports editor: Unified Flag Football debuts

On Friday night, one of the biggest games of the high school football season will be played on this same field.

That’s when Smyrna High hosts Salesianum in a rematch of last year’s memorable Division I state finals.

In that regard, the football contest that was held on the turf at Smyrna’s Charles V. Williams Stadium on Tuesday night was completely different.

Nobody took a hit, no one screamed at the referees and there was plenty of laughter all around.

“The way we win today is just to make somebody smile,” said Smyrna junior Caleb Matthews.

Matthew Bryson has a few laughs with coach Andrew Mears.

Matthew Bryson has a few laughs with coach Andrew Mears.

With that as the goal then, there seemed to be lots of winners on Tuesday night when the Eagles hosted William Penn in the first Unified Flag Football game for both squads.

There are eight Delaware high school teams playing the sport this fall. After five schools got the program started last year, this is the first time it’s been officially sanctioned by the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association.

The sport includes students with and without disabilities using five players at a time on a smaller field marked off with cones. Smyrna, Caesar Rodney and Seaford are the downstate schools with teams.

Each squad will play a four-game schedule with playoffs at the end of the season.

Coach Andrew Mears, who is also Smyrna’s boys’ basketball coach, actually saw some of last year’s Unified state finals, which were played at Delaware Stadium just after the Eagles won the Division I state crown in December.

“I just instantly thought, ‘Why weren’t we in it yet?’” Mears said about the sport. “I immediately approached (athletic director) Bill (Schultz) and just said, ‘Hey, if we have the opportunity, I would love to be a part of it.’

“It gives new perspective to all the kids involved. For some of our athletes, we concentrate so much on the game and winning that sometimes you miss what’s most important. Unified and Special Olympics really bring that stuff together.”

Senior Unified player Casey Bell, who plays on the Eagles’ girls’ soccer team, was involved with a Unified soccer program at Smyrna last spring.

“It was so much fun so I wanted to do it again,” she said. “It’s so fun, everyone being able to play together and seeing smiles on everyone’s faces. It honestly benefits everyone out here.

“You learn how to slow down and explain things more thoroughly.”

“Not everybody is the way that you are,” said Matthews. “But everybody’s great in their own way.”

Most of Smyrna’s male players, like Matthews, are from the basketball team.

It certainly made for a memorable image when seven-foot hoop player Azubuike Nwankwo took the hand of Matthew Bryson, a much-shorter, bespectacled freshman, to lead him back to his spot on the football field.

Bryson made a few catches in the game, played under the lights, with a small appreciative crowd on hand.

“We heard about it through the school and decided to sign him up,” said Bryson’s dad, Rick. “He loves it. I don’t think he expected exactly what it would be like – with the cheerleaders and the crowd and the refs and everything. It was a neat experience.”

“I think he likes the older kids, he likes watching them and being buddies with them,” said Carol Bryson, Matthew’s mom. “I think that’s a big part of it. He wants to be like them.”

The goal with any program like this, of course, is to have the Unified partners gain a new appreciation of their new teammates, as well.

At Smyrna, like in many high schools, the students with disabilities are in the same building, taking some of the same classes with the other kids their age.

For the record, the Eagles beat William Penn, 39-18, on Tuesday. But nobody seemed to be worried about that when both teams posed for one big, happy team photo together after the game.

“That does not matter at all,” Bell said about the final score. “It’s just about having fun and everyone coming together.”

Game of the century

It probably wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say some people have been looking forward to the Smyrna-Sallies rematch since last December.

The Eagles edged the Sals for their first Division I football state crown, 32-26, in overtime. The game was decided on Smyrna’s fourth-down stop on the final play of the afternoon.

Of course, before that, Salesianum posted a wild, 76-56 victory over Smyrna during the regular season.
So that makes Friday’s game, slated for 7 p.m. at Smyrna, pretty highly anticipated.

Smyrna plans to bring in some extra bleachers to its 6,000-seat stadium and the gates will open at 5:30 p.m., 30 minutes earlier than usual.

“It’s the biggest game we’ve had in my tenure,” said Smyrna athletic director Bill Schultz. “It’s exciting. It’s fun, it’ what high school sports are about – the rematch of the state championship game. Who could ask for a better situation?

“The amount of people that are talking in town.  … you go into a store in town and people are like, ‘We’re going to be there Friday.’ And these are people I haven’t seen at a game in years.”

Odds & ends

*Former Caesar Rodney High tennis standout Sarah Candeloro, a senior at Tennessee Martin, was recently named the school’s athlete of the week.
Candeloro won the Flight 1 singles bracket at the Austin Peay Fall Invitational, going 4-0 in the event.

*Chad Kuhl, the former Middletown High and Delaware pitcher, had a number of Blue Hen baseball players in the stands when he earned the win in the Pirates’ victory over the Phillies last week. The righthander is 4-3 with a 3.97 ERA in 11 starts since being called up.

*Next weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Dover International Speedway, slated for Oct. 2, will mark only the fourth time in the Monster Mile’s 93-race history, that an event will be held in October.
The lastest all-time Dover race was held on Oct. 17 in 1971.

*Delaware State grad Rodney Gunter, in his second season with the Arizona Cardinals, is second on the depth chart at one defensive tackle spot. He started 11 games a year ago.

*In case you’re wondering, Smyrna High basketball player Azubuike Nwankwo is a transfer from Wesley Christian in Kentucky. He’s listed as tall as 7-foot-2 but Eagles’ coach Andrew Mears admits he’s not quite sure how tall the newcomer is.

The school scale only goes up to 6-foot-6.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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