The three-time defending state champion Smyrna High School football team opens the season at home Friday, hosting Middletown in a rematch of the last two state title games.
They’re back to compete for another title.
On Friday, Sept. 7, the three-time defending Division I state champion Smyrna High School football team will open the season at home against rival Middletown in the annual Harvest Bowl at 7 p.m.
The Eagles and the Cavaliers have battled in the last two state title games with Smyrna winning both.
The Eagles enter the 2018 season on a historic run for the program. If they hope to stay on top, they’ll have to do so without some of the key pieces that helped lead them to each of the last three state championships.
This year’s team will have returning players thrusted into more important roles, newcomers looking to carve their own spots within the team, and the overall challenge of defending the state title.
Filling some big cleats
Throughout their three-year run as state champions, a hallmark of the Eagles’ success was an electrifying, quick-strike offense.
One player in particular that gave opposing teams nightmares was Will Knight, a key piece in three-straight titles and the state’s all-time leading rusher. While Knight is now playing at Old Dominion University, the Eagles are fortunate to have an experienced player ready to step up into the lead running back role in Stephen Whaley.
“Stephen brings a lot of versatility to the running back position,” said Smyrna Head Coach Mike Judy. “His catching and route running ability, vision and power, makes for a very dangerous player in our offense.”
Whaley is also no stranger to this offense. He’s been a staple the last three seasons, rushing for 10 touchdowns as a backup running back his freshman year before spending the last two seasons at running back and receiver roles. Last year, when the Eagles were 0-2 and Knight was out with an injury, Whaley stepped up and helped lead the team to a 30-18 win over Irvington, New Jersey with two touchdowns and three two-point conversion runs.
Whaley was also named an all-conference player at wide receiver last season.
“Stephen is very capable of shouldering the load,” Judy said. “I’m looking forward to him rising to meet that challenge.”
The future at QB
When the Eagles kick off their season Friday night against Middletown, they’ll do so with a new quarterback under center.
Smyrna dealt with a similar situation last year when transfer Isaiah Wilson, now at Norfolk State, stepped into the role for the graduating Nolan Henderson. Heading into this season, Coach Judy said the team has two talented players battling it out in sophomore Aidan Sanchez and freshman Nick Richardson.
“Aidan returns with a good grasp on running the offense effectively,” Judy said. “Nick has great ability and will continue to blossom with time.”
With two young and capable options at QB, Smyrna is in a unique position to develop both players within a system that has proven to be successful with two different quarterbacks over the last three years.
Also both QBs will benefit from the return of some important players.
While they lost center Ty-Key Moore, the Eagles bring back two of the best offensive lineman around in Saleem Wormley and Brent Young. At skill positions, Emon Roberts is back at wideout adding some security to go along with the dual-threat of Whaley in the backfield.
Regardless of who gets the nod at QB, Judy and his staff are excited by both young men.
“Competition at that spot is necessary for both young men to get better,” Judy said. “We have not been disappointed by either one.”
Pressure to four-peat?
Pressure is a big part of sports.
A game often hinges on a team or player rising to the occasion, overcoming pressure and winning, or falling victim to it in a loss.
However, what makes the pressure in sports unique is the various degrees in which it appears. From the outside, it may seem that pressure comes down to one moment, one play, one decision. However, especially in football, the pressure to be successful, the pressure to win, begins on the first day of preseason camp.
In Smyrna’s case, the pressure to stay on top has persisted since they hoisted their first of three titles back in 2015.
While the Eagles have entered each of the last two seasons as defending champs, this year is a bit different.
Since 1975, only one Division I team had the chance to enter a season looking to win their fourth-straight title, a Newark High team that won five-straight championships from 1997-2001.
Even with the possibility of a four-peat staring them down, Smyrna has stayed on the same course that’s helped them rise to the top of the high school football mountain in Delaware.
“Our focus leading up to week one continues to be getting better,” Judy said. “We’re focusing in on the details of our positions, getting more comfortable with each passing day. With many young players in this group, the staff is working hard to get them up to varsity-game speed as quickly as possible to we can attack with precision in September.”
As mentioned, the Eagles will open their season this Friday night at home against Middletown in the annual Harvest Bowl. Not only is it a rematch of the past two years’ state title game, it’s also a great first test for Smyrna. The Cavaliers enter with many talented returnees led by quarterback Drew Fry.
In week two, the Eagles travel to Maryland to take on Franklin High School which beat Smyrna last year 38-28. Franklin has posted a winning record in each of the last 12 seasons and won a state championship in 2013.
Next, Smyrna will play their first Henlopen North Division matchup on the road against Cape Henlopen which finished 3-7 last year. The Vikings will look to make some noise within the division this year under new head coach JD Maull, who made the jump from St. Georges Tech.
The Eagles return home in week four in another Henlopen North game, hosting an improved Caesar Rodney program that lost in the first round of the state tournament last season after finishing the regular season 7-3.
In week five, Smyrna travels to take on division rival Sussex Central.The Golden Knights will be looking to dethrone the Eagles after an 8-2 finish and a playoff appearance last year.
For Homecoming in week six, the Eagles host Dover. While the Senators went just 2-8 a year ago, they have two outstanding playmakers in Javon Peace and Jordan Magee.
Smyrna hits the road for the final time in week seven, heading to Sussex Tech. The Ravens finished 4-6 last year, but with a young and improving core they’ve emerged as a darkhorse in the Henlopen North.
Smyrna comes back home to face Salesianum which uncharacteristically missed the state tournament last season and will no doubt be motivated this year. Salesianum was the team Smyrna beat to win its first state title in 2015, and the Eagles have defeated Sallies in the past two regular seasons.
The Eagles wrap up the schedule at home for Senior Night against Polytech in their Henlopen North finale. The Panthers made improvements last season, finishing with a 6-4 mark, despite a 46-0 loss to Smyrna.
Now, that’s only nine regular season games instead of the usual 10. The Eagles had scheduled a game with Irvington again this year, but the New Jersey school cancelled and the Eagles were unable to find a 10th opponent.