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A pair of IR football players work on defensive back pursuit drills on a wide receiver during practice earlier this year.

A football coaching staff and its student-athletes collectively march to the beat of a weekly routine. The cycle begins and continues with on-field practices and film sessions to study the approaching opponents’ tendencies and talent and talent, and the football week culminates with the crescendo of “Friday-night lights” (or an occasional Saturday-afternoon battle) when two teams clash on the gridiron in front of their spectators.

But last Friday night became a non-event for the Indian River High School varsity football team, which was forced to cancel their scheduled game at Brandywine High in Wilmington.

“Due to medical reasons — COVID-19 in particular — we didn’t have enough healthy players who could participate to play a football game,” said Indians head coach Phil Townsend.

As a result, there was no pre-game meal, no bonding bus ride transporting the young men two-plus hours to the north, no pre-game pep talks, no blocking and tackling, no celebrating a big victory against a larger Division 2A school, and no celebratory bus ride back home.

“It was weird after school,” Townsend said. “I have my normal Friday routine, so that was affected. But we did the most of what we could on Friday. We still put in the work to prepare for the upcoming week by scouting the Seaford-Polytech game,” involving two of their upcoming opponents.

Fortunately for the Indians, there will be no reason to make up the competition with the Bulldogs. Thanks to the new football realignment created and submitted by school superintendents, and approved by the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association (DIAA) last February, the Indians’ push for the post-season remains unaffected by Friday’s cancelation.

Passing the first test, with more to come

The mere mention of the Indians as a playoff team would never have occurred prior to realignment. Due to declining numbers vying for victory on the gridiron and frequent matchups against schools with more talent and numbers, IR hasn’t played a post-season game since 2013, when it lost in Round 1 to St. Georges Tech, 42-35.

However, things may be looking up. Indian River passed its first test two weeks ago with a resounding 31-0 victory over Division 1A, District 2, rival Odessa.

Their results against Polytech, Seaford (which defeated Polytech last Friday), Laurel, Early College High School at Delaware State University and First State Military Academy will determine whether they make the playoffs. Games against Division 2A member Stephen Decatur or Division 1A, District 1, member St. Elizabeth will not figure into the Indians’ win-loss-tie mark in consideration for a playoff berth.

At season’s end, four Division 1A teams each from District 1 and District 2 will be seeded 1 through 8, according to results within their specific district, to determine the division’s state champion. The St. Elizabeth result would only be used for playoff seeding purposes if the Indians made the playoffs.

“I think, all across the state, the realignment is great,” said Townsend. “It will promote the game of football. I know there had been traditional conference rivalries, but as time changes, we need to evolve. Previously, there were a lot of differences of about 25 points” between competing teams “across the state, and that’s not good football. The new divisions make a lot more sense and will result in more kids coming come out to play the sport. “

Delaware’s new football realignment

The process of realigning the First State’s football landscape took about nine months, during which the DIAA board of directors mulled various proposals. They exchanged a considerable amount of feedback and discussion before agreeing by a vote of 10-6-1 to accept this new realignment that had been recommended by school superintendents.

As a result, for this year and next, Delaware’s 46 high school football teams are split into three classes, which replace the longstanding Division I and II alignment.

The realignment slots 11 teams in Class 3A, which comprises the largest and most successful programs. A total of 21 mid-size schools represent Class 2A, while Class 1A is made up of 14 smaller institutions that have had the least amount of recent football success.

According to the DIAA, the football reclassification provides more uniformity among schools. It also offers for more even scheduling among the state’s schools that play football, addresses safety concerns, and is designed to increase student athlete participation and interest in football to provide more teams with the opportunity to compete competitively.

Renewed hope and success

Playing against schools with similar enrollments who are also struggling on the gridiron gives these types of smaller institutions renewed hope in the form of a better opportunity to recover from previous setbacks, and success in developing a more cohesive and competitive program.

The Indians, whose student-athlete numbers settle in the high 30s, cannot compete with the likes of Division 3A schools, such as Sussex Central, to whom they have fallen by scores of 63-0 and 47-7 in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

Indian River has also struggled mightily the last few years against teams slotted in the Division 2A grouping. Woodbridge, with rosters numbering in the 60s and tremendous talent at their skill positions, has posted victories of 52-14, 58-0 and 36-3 from 2018 through 2020, respectively. Delmar has defeated the Indians by counts of 56-0, 34-13 and 21-0 those three seasons, while Lake Forest has won 35-14, 49-14 and 32-14 in that same span.

“No one wants to be on a losing team,” said Townsend. “If [student-athletes] see year in and year out that there are only a handful of strong teams, they probably won’t want to play if their school isn’t deemed to be strong. I think the realignment was made fair, and it promotes a healthy atmosphere for football.”

Townsend insisted that the new realignment has helped him recruit several new players at IR.

“I think the combination of having some success last year” when the team went 3-4-0, “and some new guys who came out during our summer 7-on-7 initiative realized that we can compete with other teams.

“I think,” he added, “some guys came out this year knowing we had a legitimate shot at a playoff run.”

Staff Reporter

Mike is a veteran sports journalist, covering generations of student-athletes in Pennsylvania, Texas and Delaware. He moved to the area in 2018 with his wife, Colleen. His passion for people and sports enables him to honor young athletes’ achievements.