For over 100 years, one of the fall traditions throughout southern Delaware has been the local high school football game, often played Saturday afternoon in the early days because none of the fields had lighting for nighttime contests.
In the early 1900s, nearly every town had its own high school. And most schools had football teams, even if the enrollment was barely large enough to field a team.
Rehoboth High School, for example, often had graduating classes of fewer than 40 students, so the football teams seldom had more than 25 players.
Commonly, most teams were forced to use the same 11 students on offense and defense.
Regardless of the size of the team — or its record — football has always been a unifying force for students and the local community alike.
“Football is not only a great sport for players, but it also is a great sport for bringing the community together,” said Gerald Mears, athletic director for the Laurel School District.
Joseph Lavachia, who played on the Rehoboth High School team in the early 1960s, agreed.
“Athletics were always a big deal in those communities,” he said.
Inevitably, those football games often produced some intense rivalries between schools in neighboring towns. Among the legendary matchups, usually played on Thanksgiving Day: Rehoboth and Lewes; Laurel and Seaford.
“When I played, Seaford was always the biggest game,” said Morris Harris, who was on the Laurel football team in the 1950s.
“When we played Lewes, everything in town closed down,” said Lavachia. “It was a big community affair.”
Though records are sparse, the typical high school football season at the turn of the last century was short, compared to 10 or more games currently. In 1913, for example, the Georgetown High School team played a total of six games — and that included home and away contests against Salisbury, Maryland and Bridgeville. Georgetown also played against Lewes and Millsboro, winning four of six games in 1913.
The previous year, Georgetown only played five games, including Seaford and a pair of contests against both Lewes and Laurel.
Though none of the schools were large, they somehow managed to produce some talented players, including some who had impressive records at the college and professional level. In many cases, it was because of a dynamic head football coach.
Laurel, for example, has always been a football power and, over the years, produced some notable athletes. And many say the coach was the reason.
Laurel was, for over three decades, the home of George S. Schollenberger, who may have had the best record in the history of high school football in Delaware. In 36 years after his arrival in 1930, his record was 140-109-21, with five undefeated seasons.
He was inducted into the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame in 1979.
Under Schollenberger, some Laurel football teams were so dominant that other high schools “didn’t want to play us,” said Harris.
Not surprisingly, three Delaware players who gained some notoriety in college and professional football in the early days came from Laurel and two of them played for Schollenberger, who also was a physical education teacher.
The first was Carlton “Stretch” Elliott, who played for Laurel High School under Schollenberger in the 1930s, was a standout at the University of Virginia and got drafted by the Green Bay Packers in 1940.
After football resumed at the end of World War II, Elliott, 6 feet, 3 inches, and 220 pounds, was a standout receiver and a favorite target of Packers quarterback Tobin Rote. In five seasons, Elliott averaged 9.1 yards per catch, even though his coaches said his blocking ability is what made him a star on the Green Bay team.
Born in 1927, Elliott died in 2005.
Schollenberger also coached Ron Waller, a standout running back who graduated from Laurel in 1951. He was a star at the University of Maryland and signed with the Los Angeles Rams after college graduation. After retiring as a player, Waller coached the San Diego Chargers.
Under Schollenberger “I think Ron was the best player,” Harris said.
Waller, born in 1933, is still alive.
But some feel that the best all-around southern Delaware football player was another Laurel star who played before Schollenberger began his coaching career.
Joshua Dallas Marvil played football in Laurel in the 1920s and helped the team win three state championships. After high school, Marvil, went on to be an outstanding college career as a tackle at Northwestern University.
At 6 feet, 3 inches, and a weight that was as high as 254 pounds, Marvil was an outstanding athlete who also played on the Northwestern basketball team.
While at Northwestern, Marvil — known by his middle name, Dallas — in 1931 became the first player in school history to be named to the All-American team. Marvil also was a unanimous choice on the Associated Press All Big Ten team.
The Northwestern team was 20-5-1 in the three years he played, including three Big Ten championships — two in football and one in basketball.
Though professional teams tried to sign the talented Marvil, he was intent on a coaching career and, after Northwestern, was hired to coach at the University of San Francisco. Born in 1910, Marvil died in 1977.
But the high school football landscape in Sussex County started to change in the 1960s and 1970s when a number of smaller schools were closed and consolidated.
Probably the most notable changes were the creation of new, centralized schools at Indian River in Dagsboro, Cape Henlopen in Lewes and Sussex Central in Georgetown. In addition, Sussex Tech was created in Georgetown to serve vocational education students from all over Sussex County.
All of the new entities swallowed a number of small community high schools. Indian River, for example, had students that previously attended 10 different local schools.
Those consolidations also changed the complexion of high school football.
“That ended a lot of traditional rivalries,” said former Rehoboth star Lavachia.
Charles Hudson, retired Indian River superintendent, agreed.
“That did change things,” he said.
Indeed, the new schools resulted in the creation of new rivalries — although some of the traditional matchups have survived.
“Laurel and Seaford is still a big game,” said Mears, the Laurel athletic director.
Hudson said Indian River’s biggest nemesis when he was superintendent was another consolidated school.
“Our biggest rival was Sussex Central,” he said. “It didn’t matter what their records were, it was always an emotional game.”
Cape Henlopen in Lewes seems to have multiple rivals, including Sussex Tech and Indian River.
“But Sussex Tech seems to be the biggest,” said Robert Cilento, Cape Henlopen athletic director. “It is always a big game and it is a great rivalry for the kids.”
At Sussex Tech, a football powerhouse in Georgetown, it is hard to figure out which opponents are the biggest rivals.
“It seems like every game versus a team in the county is a rivalry game for us or for some of our students,” said Nick Pegelow, Sussex Tech athletic director. “That adds a little bit of excitement to every game. “
But Pegelow agreed with Cilento that, “over the last few years, Cape Henlopen has seemed to become a big rivalry game for our school along with our traditional cross-town rival, Sussex Central.”
Sussex Tech Superintendent A.J. Lathbury agreed.
“There are certain games that illicit emotions beyond the average event,” he said.
Through a history that dates to the early 1900s, the excitement and intensity of high school football in southern Delaware has been constant.
“There is nothing more exciting than a Friday night football game at Sussex Tech. The lights are on, the band is rocking, and the cheerleaders are performing,” said Pegelow. “It really is a great event for the community.”
“On a Friday night in Laurel, we have pretty much the whole community coming out” to a game, said Mears. “You can just see how the community gets involved.”
Regardless of the win-loss record of the team in any given year, many agree that high school football is a benefit to the student athletes, to the school and its community.
“Sports have a way of rallying schools and communities,” said Pegelow.
“And, through participation in athletics, our students learn about teamwork, sportsmanship, winning and losing, hard work, self-discipline, and competition,” he said.