Sussex Central, Woodbridge appreciative to be back in football finals

NEW CASTLE — A long week of preparation is ahead for both Sussex Central High and Woodbridge High.

But both coaches want their players to be able to appreciate the moment.

Sussex Central takes on Salesianum at 1 p.m. in the Division I DIAA state football championship game on Saturday. Woodbridge meets Wilmington Friends at 6 p.m. for the Division II crown.

Both games are hosted at Delaware Stadium’s Tubby Raymond Field on the Newark campus of the University of Delaware.

Woodbridge is back in the finals after winning it all in 2016. Sussex Central though is in its first title game since 2008.

The Golden Knights were in the postseason each of the prior two seasons but fell in the first round and watched conference rival Smyrna High win three Division I titles in a row.

Speaking at the DIAA state championship press conference on Monday, Sussex Central coach John Wells stressed how hard it is to even make one championship game.

“There are no guarantees in sport,” Wells said. “I’m a sports junkie and watch NFL, NBA, really any level. For someone to be able to do what Smyrna has done the last couple years or the Golden State Warriors, even if you get there just once in a career is a blessing. You got to have the coaching, the players and you got to catch the breaks.”

This will be only the second appearance in a football state title game for Woodbridge. The Raiders (10-2) face Wilmington Friends (10-1) in the Division II finals at 6 p.m. in a rematch of the 2016 championship game.

Woodbridge coach Ed Manlove, though, has been in nine or 10 state finals as a coach.

That includes his time with Middletown and Laurel, as well.

“The moment is a little bigger but take it all in and enjoy it,” Manlove said he tells his players. “A lot of schools don’t ever get to experience this.

“You try to tell the kids how special it is. I say, ‘When you come back and you see your friends 20 years from now, you’re going to talk about that game. That’s just the way it is.’ Even if you didn’t win, you’re going to talk about it. Just try to make it special and do the very best you can because it’s a lot nicer when you do win.”

It is the fifth appearance for Sussex Central. The Golden Knights were runner-ups three years in a row from 2006-2008.

Wells also coaches softball at Sussex Central. He said he experienced a similar 10-year stretch without making the finals there.

The Golden Knight softball team won the 1995 state softball championship, reached the 1996 title game but did not go back again until it won it all in 2005.

“I’ve been pretty blessed to coach two sports and I can tell you it’s hard to get there,” Wells said. “Kids are working year-round and you got a lot of top-notch programs. We’ve wanted to be here the last two years but we’ve met some good teams in the playoffs. You’ve got to avoid the injuries, you’ve got to avoid other roadblocks. Sometimes you have a team you think can make it to the end but a ball bounces the wrong way, you lose one game and you don’t make the playoffs.”

One nerve-wracking drive

Of course, Sussex Central wouldn’t be in the state finals if it weren’t for its dramatic game-winning drive against Dover in Friday’s semifinals.

The Knights marched 68 yards on 13 plays — twice converting on fourth downs — to score on Domonigue Smith’s 11-yard touchdown catch from Isaac Barnes with just 31.7 seconds on the clock. The TD gave Central a heart-pounding 21-20 victory.

“I’m still feeling it,” Wells said several minutes after the game ended. “I’ve been there a few times where it’s worked out pretty well, sometimes not. It’s an adrenaline rush. Sometimes it’s a helpless feeling.

“It’s tough. You’ve got to be able to make calls with pressure. It’s not an easy thing to do. The guys up top were helpful and the guys on the sideline were all chipping in. But you can’t run the plays if you don’t have the players doing the job.”

Just before the winning TD pass, Wells said he actually had to call timeout because he was getting a little too much advice from his staff. Central scored on a third-and-six play.

“It’s tough,” said Wells. “You’ve got so many guys talking to you on the sidelines … I’ve got to take all that information and come up with up with something. I just had enough.

“I took my headset off and said, ‘OK, too many thoughts.’ I called timeout and settled the guys down. ‘Let’s not rush through this.’”

Smyrna back in unified

The Smyrna High unified flag football team will also be playing for a state championship game.

The Eagles will meet Newark Charter in between the Division I and Division II matchups. Kickoff is tentatively scheduled for 4 p.m.

Smyrna’s unified team is in its fourth-year of existence and is already in its second title game.

“I think every group is different,” said coach Andrew Mears. “This group has their own characteristics and their own personality. It’s been fun, they’ve been working all year and a lot of friendships have been developed. It’s really fun. I’m more of a facilitator, I try to stay hands off and let these kids develop their own connections. Just being an observer is very special to me.”

Mears has been the unified coach at Smyrna since the progam’s inception.

“I’ve always had a passion for working with kids of all abilities,” Mears said. “When I saw this game was being played at Tubby Raymond Field in it’s first year, I jumped on it the first chance I got.”

Mears will have his hands full this week though.

He’s also the boys’ basketball coach at Smyrna. The Eagles open their season Friday night at home against Cape Henlopen High (7 p.m.).

“It’s a busy week,” Mears said. “I’m only able to manage it because I got good people around me.”

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