With sparse crowds, parents peering through fences, Delaware high school football kicks off

Brad Myers Kevin Tresolini
Delaware News Journal

For the first time since anyone could remember, there was nary a cowbell to be heard at a Middletown High School football game.

With seven DIAA state championships, the Cavaliers are known for their football program – and the noisy legion of fans that follow them.

But on Saturday morning at Concord High in Brandywine Hundred, the bells were silent. Like many schools across the state, Concord was allowing only parents of the home team to attend, part of the many new safety protocols in place due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Masked officials share hand sanitizer during a break in St. Georges' 21-7 win at Appoquinimink on Friday night, part of the delayed opening weekend of Delaware high school football.

“Shew, I can’t ever remember that,” said coach Zach Blum, who grew up in Middletown and played for the Cavaliers. “You talk about since I’ve been here, but even as a kid I can’t remember no cowbells. I guess we’ll have to get used to it.”

It was part of the unusual sights and mostly muted sounds of an opening weekend of Delaware high school football that was unlike any other.

Most teams still had cheerleaders, but only a few had marching bands. At several games, there were more fans watching from outside the stadium than in the stands.

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There were carefully placed chairs on the sidelines to allow players to take socially distanced water breaks. Xs marked where fans were allowed to sit in the bleachers – or sometimes the rows to be skipped.

After the games, teams lined up to show sportsmanship but remained too far apart to shake hands. Players spread out to listen to their coaches’ postgame speeches, keeping their helmets and face coverings on under strict orders.

Newark fans and players are socially distanced during Howard's 48-12 victory on Saturday night at Brandywine.

It was different. But all of it was necessary to follow the new Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association rules and Delaware Division of Public Health guidelines issued to allow football, a high-contact sport, to be played safely during the pandemic.

“When you look at the effort the athletes are putting in and when you look at the parents, especially the ones of the seniors, it’s what makes it all worthwhile,” said Bradley Layfield, chairperson of the DIAA board of directors. “Doing all the things with the protocols in place, and you don’t get any lip back. It’s, ‘Yes sir, OK.’ Because they know they just want to play, and they’re going to do whatever it takes.”

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Layfield, principal at Sussex Central, was handing out water to players on the sideline during the Golden Knights’ home game against Cape Henlopen on Friday night. Afterward, he commended the team on their 26-17 victory – and their willingness to follow all of the new rules.

The crowd was sparse in Georgetown. Sussex Central allowed each athlete, cheerleader and band member to have four tickets. But like all of the games in the Henlopen Conference, no fans from the visiting team were permitted.

Monique and Loretta Tilley, mother and grandmother of K’Tai Tilley, had never missed a game played by the Golden Knights’ All-State linebacker. They were bundled up and masked up, and happy to be able to watch the first game of his senior year.

“The crowd size is definitely different, but we still have a little crowd out here to show support for the boys,” Monique Tilley said. “… They have everything situated where we can social distance.”

It’s like Christmas Eve

St. Georges coach John Wilson said opening night provided a unique and pleasant sense of anticipation that only happens one other time each year.

“You know how Christmas Eve feels when you’re a little kid?” Wilson said. “It feels like that.”

His team had just beaten Appoquinimink 21-7 at Jaguars Stadium in Middletown on Friday night.

“The whole day I kept saying to myself ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this,’ in a good way,” Wilson said.

Appoquinimink's Chloe Le makes an extra point from David Lubrano's hold in St. Georges' 21-7 win at Appoquinimink on Friday.

He deserved to treasure the moment.

Wilson, who is president of the Delaware Interscholastic Football Coaches Association, was instrumental in getting the football season started.

He led the way in putting together the health and safety protocols enacted in summer conditioning and preseason practice, such as selecting which masks would be most effective. St. Georges players, like most teams, wore a mouth and nose covering that attached under their helmet facemasks and provided a little more breathing space.

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“I was excited when we got the opportunity to work out in July,” Wilson said. “It really has been a collective effort. At times we may not have agreed with certain groups, but they all eventually did what was best for these kids.”

Wilson realizes that not everyone thinks students should be playing sports now, but he thinks it is important.

“I also teach. I’m an educator,” he said. “I see kids on Zoom or [Microsoft] Teams all day. When I see these kids come out for practice, it’s the best part of my day. It makes the most sense. It’s fun.”

St. Georges' Donovan Delaney takes off with a reception in St. Georges' 21-7 win at Appoquinimink on Friday night.

St. Georges' players Donovan Delaney and Michael Santos cherished the chance to play and didn’t take it for granted. Both have played football since they were 5 and couldn’t imagine a fall without it.

“It was definitely scary thinking we were not gonna have a season,” said Delaney, a first-team All-Flight A linebacker as a junior last year. “Not having a senior season was terrifying to me. I’m just so blessed to be out here playing, even with a limited schedule.”

“As soon as we got the news we were playing, we were all smiles,” said Santos, a junior offensive tackle/linebacker. “We just want to keep following the guidelines, keep our masks on.”

At Appoquinimink, all players, cheerleaders and band members were allowed to have two family members at the game.

They ordered tickets on through a code set up by the school. Because some personal information is included, athletic director Chris Muscara explained, it provides contact tracing data if needed. District rivals Middletown and Odessa are doing the same thing.

Outside looking in

Earlier Friday, the state’s first football game was played without fans inside Coaches’ Field at Archmere.

“We’re just trying to do right by the kids,” Archmere athletic director Dave Oswinkle said of the Diamond State Conference policy, which will be reviewed this week. “This has been a brand new situation for all of us.”

Archmere kicks off against St. Elizabeth in front of deserted stands at Coaches' Field in Claymont on Friday. No fans were permitted at the game, but the Diamond State Conference policy is expected to be reviewed.

Determined fans could still get their eyes on the game, though. About 20 gathered along Myrtle Avenue at the stadium’s northern end and peered between black metal fence posts.

It wasn’t the ideal way for Shante Fitzgerald to watch son Willie Walker play for St. Elizabeth, which lost to Archmere 31-8. But it beat the alternative of not seeing him at all or his senior season not taking place.

“I do not like it, but I’m just glad they got to play,” said Fitzgerald, who was watching with several family members. “I will park on any hill, sit on my car. I was one of those parents fighting for them to play. If I can be here on the outside, see him, make sure he’s safe, I’m thankful. I’m gonna make it work.”

Walker has asthma, which made his mother nervous with him wearing the mouth covering, but she said he has handled it fine.

Truck seating

At the Conrad School of Science near Newport, where fans were not permitted for Saturday’s 11 a.m. kickoff against St. Mark’s, the stadium’s setting provided ample viewing spots. Marion Place rises up at its western end and Victoria Avenue stretches the length of its south side, and a black chain-link fence wasn’t an obstacle.

Pamela Jensen, mother of Conrad quarterback Quinton Conway, was perched in the back of a black pickup with several friends. She wore a black T-shirt with her son’s number "8" bearing the words “Pack Pride.”

Newark's Corey Howard (9) is brought down by Howard's Michael Brock (right) and Al'Zion Triplett during Howard's 48-12 win at Brandywine on Saturday.

“I’m happy that he gets to play,” Jensen said. “I’m happy everyone gets to play. Being out here, we don’t like it. Rather be in the stands with masks on, but right now we do what we can do.

“I’ve submitted a petition to the superintendent [of the Red Clay Consolidated School District]. Some other schools get to have spectators. Everybody has different rules, and all we’re asking for is two people per kid. If we have to be around the entire track, we’ll stand.”

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After scoring three touchdowns in a 36-6 win, St. Mark’s senior Christian Colmery said it was worth all the hardship to get back on the field.

Colmery is heading to the University of Delaware to play baseball next year, and he missed his 2020 baseball season at St. Mark’s because of COVID-19.

“I love being out there with my guys, my brothers, my teammates,” said Colmery, a wide receiver/defensive back and third-year starter. “I don’t care if we have to wear masks, as long as we’re playing football.”

Cautionary tale

About three hours before Friday’s scheduled 5 p.m. kickoff against Delmar, Woodbridge School District announced that Woodbridge High had been closed and the game had been canceled after multiple positive tests were reported among staff and students.

“I’m sitting out here as kids pull in, telling them the game is canceled,” Woodbridge coach Jed Bell said Friday. “It’s heartbreaking. My kids are just devastated.”

The district statement said the campus will be closed until Nov. 9. Classes will continue through remote learning, but all of the Blue Raiders’ fall athletic programs – football, volleyball, boys soccer, field hockey and cross country – will be suspended during that time.

The Woodbridge football team, a perennial Division II title contender ranked No. 2 statewide by Delaware Online, will likely be unable to play its first three games in what is only a seven-game regular season.

Socially distanced fans watch Sussex Central take on Cape Henlopen on Friday night in Georgetown.

Coaches around the state told their players about the situation at Woodbridge, using it as a reminder to stay disciplined and cautious at school, in public and at home.

“We tell the kids every day, ‘Look, you have to follow the rules,’” St. Mark’s coach Joey Wright said. “We are lucky enough to be out here right now, but we may not be out here in two weeks if you don’t follow the rules.”

More cowbell

At Concord on Saturday morning, a reporter counted 71 spectators in the home bleachers midway through the second quarter.

“I think people are still trying to keep their spirits up and trying to be as supportive of the team as possible,” said Elisabeth Cope, mother of Concord kicker Miles Bliey. “… I know it was a very hard-fought battle to get football started, as well as all the fall sports this season. We were concerned as well, just with everything going on. But we’re encouraged to see that they are social distancing and taking sanitation seriously.”

COVID-19 precautions are evident as the Concord High School marching band performs at halftime of Saturday's home game against Middletown.

Like all coaches and players, it was the first time going through a game while wearing a mask for Middletown’s Blum. But the adrenaline took over.

“That stuff goes out the window,” Blum said. “Once you get out here and start playing ball and coaching ball, all that stuff out the window.”

The Concord band gave a spirited halftime performance, the bells of many of their instruments covered as another COVID-19 precaution.

Trailing 18-7, the music didn’t help the visiting team’s players listening to their coaches’ adjustments at the other end of the field. Middletown managed to rally for a 21-18 victory, but what they needed is something they can only get during their home games at Cavaliers Stadium this season.

They needed more cowbell.

“That really would help us,” quarterback Colby Chambers said. “We missed the fans a lot today.”

Contact Brad Myers at Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ