NEW CASTLE – Neither of the head coaches involved in this Saturday’s Division I football state championship game expects a repeat of their Sept. 25 matchup. When Salesianum hosted Smyrna in that week 3 matchup, the Sals and Eagles put on an offensive show, with Salesianum winning, 76-56.
”I can’t see another game like that happening, I really can’t,” Smyrna coach Mike Judy said Monday at a media luncheon. We left that game as a staff, we were just looking at each other like, 76-56, really? That’s an unbelievable game.”
His counterpart, Bill DiNardo, said his team learned from that game against the high-octane Eagles.
“We have to be better with our tackling. Smyrna’s a very, very good team and showed that not only with us but all year long. You have to make the plays. You absolutely have to make the plays. It’s a tough thing. You don’t get second chances with them. So when the opportunity comes and you have to make a tackle, you have to make the tackle,” DiNardo said.
The teams, both of which are 10-1, kick off at 1 p.m. at Delaware Stadium in Newark for the state championship. The Sals’ only loss came the week after they defeated Smyrna, dropping a 14-7 decision to Father Judge in Philadelphia.
Third-seeded Smyrna, DiNardo continued, is more than an offensive powerhouse. The Eagles try to make their opponents uncomfortable on special teams, attempting only two-point conversions and onside kicks. And their defense is “one of the most underrated” in the state.
Judy said his team’s 30-10 semifinal win at William Penn was important because it showed they can win by grinding it out, especially late in a game. That, he said, is “not really in our DNA.”
The Eagles are respectful of the top-seeded Sals’ talent, particularly in the offensive backfield. Senior running back Colby Reeder scored seven rushing touchdowns in their first meeting, but he is not alone in possessing the ability to do damage. Salesianum also can run Zach Jarome and throw the ball to receiver Jeremy Ryan, who scored twice in the first game, or tight end Kyle Cathers.
“Those guys are tremendous players,” Judy said. “They’ve been effective all year. Colby Reeder is an unbelievable talent, and Jarome is a great fullback. They sneak him in there, and in the absence of a Colby Reeder, he could – with that offensive line – be very productive as well. I’m very impressed with them offensively and defensively.”
A main key to the game is slowing Reeder down. Judy said he isn’t sure there’s a way to stop the 225-pount senior.
“We’ll have a plan in place to try to do some things, getting him to slow down before he hits the hole at full speed, and that’s all you can hope for. Hopefully, offensively we can get into a rhythm like we did in our shootout in week three,” he said.
For Smyrna, the offense revolves around running back Will Knight, the speedy sophomore who scored four times at Salesianum, including runs of 57 and 51 yards. Receiver Donte Ritchie is a pass-catching weapon.
Two names that came up repeatedly in the discussions on Monday were Garrett Cannon and Nolan Henderson, the respective quarterbacks of Salesianum and Smyrna. Cannon suffered a broken ankle and is out for the title game, while Henderson was carted off the field Saturday against William Penn and had not been cleared to play this week as of Monday.
DiNardo said Cannon is a talented player and leader, but the Sals would be ready to go behind sophomore Zach Gwynn. “He responded very well in a pressure-filled game against a top-notch defense like Middletown. He’s a sophomore, he’s the quarterback of the future for our program, but his future’s going to start Saturday.”
According to Judy, the coaching staff at Smyrna has a plan in place whether it’s Henderson or “the Will Knight Show.” The team hopes Henderson can go this weekend. “To lose a guy like that, to not have him there to experience the win, whether he was playing or he was hurt on the sideline, it hurts me to my soul,” the coach said.
Aside from game preparations, the coaches have noticed the effect of reaching the championship game on their school and wider communities. Judy said no matter where he goes – the grocery store, the gas station, out to get the mail at his house – people have been coming up to him wishing the Eagles luck.
“It feels like they are a part. It doesn’t feel like it’s our team and then they’re there to cheer us on,” he said. “All the feedback I get … they’re all fired up, they’re very proud of us. Regardless of what happens in the state championship game, they’re proud of us. There’s nothing more that our team wants than to bring that home.”
Salesianum may have multiple championship banners hanging in its gymnasium, including one from just two seasons ago, but the feeling is similar to the one in Kent County, DiNardo said. “It’s what every kid dreams of, it’s what every coach dreams of.”
“It’s a great opportunity for our kids, for us, for our staff and our school. We are more than excited.”
DIAA officials have some pointers to make the game-day experience a smooth one for everyone involved. Two of them are to buy tickets in advance, and to arrive early at Delaware Stadium.
Tickets are available at diaa.ticketleap.com and are $8. They should be printed, since the scanners work much faster on paper than on phone screens. They are also available at the respective schools. Salesianum will be selling them in the school bookstore from 8 a.m.-3 p.m. the rest of this week. The DIAA office in the Collette Education Resource Center at 35 Commerce Way in Dover is another place to purchase.
University of Delaware regulations prohibit tailgating, and anyone who leaves the premises will need to purchase another ticket to re-enter. Each guest may bring one unopened bottle of water. The gates will open no later than noon. Overflow parking will be available at the university’s STAR campus across Route 896 from the stadium.