SEAFORD – In June, Jerry Kobasa left a coaching job in which he’d been to four NCAA Division III Tournaments to oversee a high school athletic program that didn’t have a winning team last year.
As far as difficult tasks go, there may be none greater than what Kobasa has inherited at Seaford High.
But it was what the Blue Jays once were and what they could be – not what they’ve been recently – that attracted Kobasa.
Seaford teams have won 129 Henlopen divisional, conference and postseason meet or tournament titles since 1969, but only three the last five school years.
From 1980 through 1999, Seaford played in 16 state championship games in football, baseball, boys basketball and field hockey. They have not won a divisional or conference title in any of those since 2002.
“Everybody thought I was nuts for doing this,” Kobasa said. “A lot of people were negative about it, and I’m like ‘Why? Seaford was a tremendous place. Why can’t it be that way again?’ ’’
Socio-economic change in the town of 7,325 brought on by the departure of the DuPont Nylon plant is viewed as a primary culprit in the downfall of Seaford athletics, along with families opting to send children to neighboring schools such as Sussex Tech.
Kobasa was a rare white quarterback at historically black Delaware State in 1969-70. He’s the former basketball coach at Smyrna High and, after it became a full-time school in 1991, Sussex Tech, where he was also athletic director. He served a long stint as the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association’s board of directors chairman.
Now he’s working with Seaford School District superintendent David Perrington and Seaford High principal Terry Carson, long-time professional friends and associates, to turn around a school, its sports and perhaps, an entire town.
In hiring Carson and Kobasa, Perrington cites what he feels are key ingredients – savvy and energetic leadership — in improving the school’s fortunes.
“When I was thinking about coming here, one of the things I was looking at was Seaford did have a rich tradition both academically and athletically,” said Perrington, who had previous administrative experience in the Indian River, Sussex Tech and Caesar Rodney districts.
“I’ve been in Delaware for a while and I was here in the mid-80s so I knew what the Seaford teams were like and what they were able to accomplish. That was affirmed when I went out and started talking to community groups. Usually, the first question or two was ‘What are you going to do about the sports programs?’ That was a huge concern for what we’re going to do.”
Carson donned a Seaford band uniform and marched with it last year in an effort to relate to students and stir their enthusiasm. Perhaps she’s on to something. Seaford’s band had just 13 members and, at Carson’s urging, embraced its small size.
This year, the band will triple in size. It’s the kind of progress, she said, that shows Seaford is turning the corner.
“Friday night lights get people behind you,” Carson said, referring to the football games at Dowd Stadium, where seats were once packed but are now plentiful.
Seaford is a year removed from a 44-game losing streak in baseball, a sport in which it has sent 12 players to the pros. That includes Delino DeShields, who played 13 big-league seasons and is now the Triple-A Louisville Bats manager, and Mike Neill, who had a brief call-up with the Oakland Athletics and also won a gold medal for the U.S. 2000 Olympic team.
On the football field, Seaford has dropped 17 straight and 34 of its last 35 Henlopen Conference Southern Division games.
Among Kobasa’s first tasks was hiring Dwayne Henry as football coach. Henry played football for Kobasa, who was an assistant coach, at Smyrna and coached at Sussex Tech while he was there, in addition to working on collegiate staffs at Delaware State and Coppin State.
“We want to do things the right way and, if we do, we’ll come out in a positive way,” said Henry. “We’ve got to keep the kids who are here to play football and come into the strength and conditioning program.’’
Henry was encouraged when 70 prospective players came to a spring introductory meeting. The weightroom has been full on a regular basis. The town does not have a youth tackle football program that would benefit the middle and high school teams. So Henry and his staff will focus on fundamentals.
“I like what he’s doing,” junior two-way lineman Zaire Frisby said of Henry. “New plays, showing us new stuff, giving us more information about football. People are coming out who haven’t played football before and he’s getting them right.’’
Sussex Tech, where students must apply and be selected for admission, has been a popular destination for parents who feel it provides a better learning environment for their children. In the most recent Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System testing for all of the state’s 10th-graders, Sussex Tech ranked fifth statewide in math and seventh in reading scores.
Seaford was 33rd in reading and 35th in math, among the lowest from the state’s 39 public high schools but better than its ninth-grade scores. Nearby Laurel ranked 27th in reading and 30th in math while Woodbridge was 30th in reading and 29th in math in the most recent sophomore-year assessments.
Mike Covey, a 1988 Seaford graduate who starred in football and baseball, said school selection is a personal choice for families that involves many factors. He sent older daughter Hannah to Sussex Tech to study cosmetology. But the second of his five children, Abigail, attends Seaford, where she has played field hockey and soccer and made the honor roll, which he said is an example of the benefit of staying home.
“She has a place there,” Covey said. “She’s getting a great education in a good atmosphere. Sure it’s much different than when I was there. The demographics have changed so much and there aren’t as many kids who benefit from having supportive families. But a kid who wants to get a good education at Seaford can do that.”
Another ex-Seaford athlete, Marcus Trammell, who played two seasons in the Chicago White Sox minor-league system, said it will take “a groundswell of the community” to restore everyone’s faith in Seaford High.
He said the school had been plagued by a lack of discipline in recent years, and Perrington and Carson said they’ve seen improvement already after focusing attention on improved behavior. Trammell does see that stigma disappearing, he said, though his daughter, Morgan, attends Sussex Tech, where Trammell is an assistant softball coach.
Two years ago, when Carson was serving as an assistant principal at Frederick Douglass Elementary School, her first job in the Seaford School District, she was stunned to see so many kids wearing athletic gear sporting Laurel Bulldogs, Woodbridge Blue Raiders or Sussex Tech Ravens colors and logos.
“I kept thinking, ‘What’s going on here?’ ” said Carson, a Cape Henlopen High graduate familiar with Seaford’s athletic history. “I saw people not believing in themselves.”
Before becoming principal, Carson helped conduct a school climate survey for the University of Delaware at Seaford. It revealed, she said, that “there wasn’t a lot of pride in the school.”
“Seaford,” she counters, “has a richness in its school system that needs to be celebrated in terms of cultural diversity, music, arts, athletics. There are so many people with talent here.”
But in her first year as principal, Carson detected something that made Seaford High unique.
As she walked through the cafeteria at lunchtime, chatting with students, she noticed that those with different ethnic backgrounds were more likely to be sitting together than at other places she’d been.
“That puts you,” she said, “way ahead of the curve.”
Restoring the pride
In the 1980s and well into the 1990s, when Seaford was sprouting championship teams and baseball stars like DeShields and future NFL player Lovett Purnell, it had a popular elective.
There were two classes per day, each with 55 students, boys and girls. The teachers were Ron Dickerson, the football and baseball coach, and basketball coaches Len Chasanov and, after Chasanov moved to Woodbridge, Dave Baker.
The class was weight-lifting and conditioning. Sirman and Dickerson agree it was absolutely critical to the Blue Jays’ athletic success. Dickerson would take half the class into the weightroom. Chasanov and then Baker had the other half for exercises and conditioning drills.
But it was valuable not just because it helped students become more fit. It also provided, Dickerson said, an environment where camaraderie, encouragement and positive vibes reigned.
“If there was a problem – academically or socially,” Dickerson said, “Len and then Dave and I would often be able to help work it out with the kids. It was all-encompassing. And there were non-athletes in there.”
There was also a carryover effect, Dickerson added, as many athletes continued weight training and conditioning right through summer to prepare for their fall seasons.
In a long talk with former Seaford athletic director Ben Sirman this summer, Kobasa learned of that program and its value, though he isn’t sure yet if something similar can be instituted.
In the meantime, Kobasa has sought ways to brighten the mood of Seaford athletics. The school gym has been undergoing a renovation, with vivid yellow and blue paint streaking across the gleaming white walls and more sunlight streaming in the windows.
Kobasa felt too much turnover and too little experience in the coaching ranks has hurt Seaford in recent years. He’s been busy this summer rebuilding his coaching staff with, in addition to football’s Dwayne Henry, boys soccer’s Duane Henry (no relation), the former boys soccer coach at Dover High and track coach at Delaware State; volleyball’s Jerry Szabo, who has considerable scholastic and collegiate experience; field hockey’s Connie Breen; and cross country’s Angelina Idler.
High school sports teams are often a springboard for community self-esteem. Seaford is living proof of that.
But in a bit of historic athletic turnabout, as Seaford has undergone a socio-economic metamorphosis, the Blue Jays have borne the brunt. Opponents used to wither at the very sight of Seaford teams, whether they were arriving with football helmets, field hockey sticks, baseball bats or even tennis rackets.
Nobody cowers anymore.
“Everybody said it was great,” Frisby, the junior lineman, said of those days. “Everybody was scared to come to Seaford. We start doing that kind of stuff, winning games, people are going to respect us, because nobody respects us now.”
At Seaford High, they want their swagger back.
“The one thing people tend to focus on is that we’ve lost a lot of good kids,” said Seaford mayor David Genshaw, a former Blue Jays football player. “I think they’re still here. We’ve let them disperse to other schools. With the new football coach, with Jerry, they seem excited with the opportunity to turn it around. I think that’s half the battle. I think we’ve got the best shot right now to kind of get that back.”
Contact Kevin Tresolini at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @kevintresolini.