The Sussex Academy of Arts and Sciences can’t wait to join the Henlopen Conference.
So the Seahawks are going to do it at the first possible minute.
Sussex Academy’s volleyball, soccer and cross country teams plan to start practice at 12:01 a.m. Aug. 15, the first day Delaware’s fall sports teams are allowed to begin workouts. The teams will go through 90-minute practices at the school’s Georgetown campus, then enjoy a pancake breakfast prepared by the athletes’ parents.
“We’re just trying kick off and announce to everyone that we’re here, we’re fully varsity now,” athletic director Steve Oscar said. “We’ve participated in freshman and JV the last couple of years, but now we’re here and we’re excited about trying to get ready and compete.”
Sussex Academy is the first new school to join the Henlopen Conference since Polytech in 2007. The addition is one of several moves that will impact high school athletics across the state.
This school year marks the start of Delaware’s two-year scheduling cycle, which allows schools to agree to both a home game and an away game with an annual opponent over a two-year period. This year also marks the biennial adjustment of the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association’s split of member schools into two divisions for state tournament play in football, cross country, dual team wrestling, outdoor track and soccer.
Based on changes in enrollment, Mount Pleasant is moving up to Division I and will compete in Flight A of the Blue Hen Conference. Glasgow is moving to Division II and will replace Mount Pleasant in Blue Hen Flight B.
There are no adjustments in the Henlopen Conference. The Northern Division (seven largest schools) will remain the same, while Sussex Academy will join the seven smallest schools in the Southern Division.
St. Mark’s is moving into Division II for the first time. The Spartans’ enrollment was small enough to move into D-II two years ago, but they petitioned to remain in Division I. This year, St. Mark’s will take its place among the state’s smaller schools and may be a title contender in several sports.
Big moves in Diamond State
The Diamond State Conference will see the largest changes, as Delmarva Christian and St. Thomas More depart and Newark Charter joins. The league will change again in two years, as Wilmington Christian will move to the Delaware Independent School Conference (DISC) in the 2017-18 school year.
Now all of the Diamond State’s five schools – Archmere, Conrad, Delaware Military Academy, Newark Charter and Wilmington Christian – are located in New Castle County.
St. Thomas More, located in Magnolia, has decided to compete as an independent. Delmarva Christian, located in Georgetown, will continue to be the only Delaware school in the six-team, Maryland-based Eastern Shore Independent Athletic Conference. The Royals are filling the Diamond State gaps in their schedules by playing more Henlopen Conference teams.
“We’ve been in both conferences since our existence [in 2003], and it just got to be too much to drive all the way to Wilmington,” Delmarva Christian athletic director Jeff Mohr said. “We just decided that we needed to stay closer to home.
“It’s a travel issue. Archmere is very good, Wilmington Christian is very good; we had great relationships with all of those people. But it’s just getting out of class at 1 or 1:30 to play baseball or softball games, it was a little too much.”
The most recent addition to the Delaware Independent School Conference came in 1968, when Westtown School was added. But the West Chester, Pennsylvania, school decided to leave DISC this year.
That potentially opened a door for Wilmington Christian, and the Warriors had already knocked. With a high school enrollment of 233, WCS was by far the smallest school in the Diamond State Conference. A couple of years ago, WCS athletic director Joe Thomson discussed the possibility of joining DISC – whose five Delaware members all have high school enrollments between 200-300 students – with some of the league’s ADs.
“To me, it made sense for a school of our size to at least look into it,” Thomson said.
Nothing happened at the time. But then a potential plan to expand the Diamond State Conference didn’t go through, and Westtown decided to leave DISC. That cleared a path for Wilmington Christian, which had already been playing DISC schools in many sports for several years.
“They already knew the kind of program we run,” Thomson said. “They knew we were very similar in philosophy, and we run a very good, strong athletic program, and we do everything according to the way it should be done. I really believe that helped us more than anything.”
The administrators of the DISC schools approved the addition of Wilmington Christian in June. Following the conference’s bylaws, WCS will compete as a probationary member for the next two seasons, then expects to become a full member in the 2017-18 school year.
“Size-wise, academic-wise, location-wise, there are just so many things that really align us well with those schools,” Thomson said. “I think it’s a great, great fit for Wilmington Christian.”
WCS is located in Hockessin, less than 2 miles from DISC member Sanford and within a 15-minute drive of DISC members Tower Hill, Tatnall and Wilmington Friends. Only St. Andrew’s, 40 minutes away in Middletown, is a minor travel hurdle. Thomson said Wilmington Christian has no plans to add football (Sanford does not play football, either), but may consider adding girls lacrosse as part of the move.
Here comes Sussex Academy
Joining Kent and Sussex counties’ smaller public schools in the Henlopen South is a big step for Sussex Academy, a public charter school that began its expansion from grades 6-8 to a full high school two years ago.
The Seahawks’ oldest students will be juniors this year. They expect to have a senior class of about 36 next year, followed by 65 the following year and 106 in the 2018-19 school year.
The school’s charter allows for 125 students per grade, so Sussex Academy expects to max out at about 500 high school students. That would put the Seahawks’ enrollment in line with Laurel, the smallest Henlopen South school with 508 students. Sussex Academy also could receive an athletic boost from eighth-graders, who will be eligible for high school competition because they attend school in the same building as the high school.
“We’re definitely excited about it on the high school level,” Oscar said. “We’ve been a member on the middle-school level for eight or nine years now. … We’re definitely interested in getting in there, building a program and trying to compete with the big boys down here.”
Sussex Academy will be the only Henlopen school without a football program, and there are no plans to add football in the immediate future. But that actually eased the school’s move into the league.
“It caused some scheduling problems because we’re the 15th school, so now there’s an odd number,” Oscar said. “That was a little bit of a challenge for the conference to fit us in. But not having football has helped. That was kind of a key factor for them accepting us.”
The school’s Georgetown campus, located near the Sussex County Airport, is expanding rapidly. Oscar expects the first of two artificial turf athletic fields to be ready March 15. Two multi-purpose grass fields and a softball field are being added, and the school is building an eight-lane indoor swimming pool with seating for 350 spectators.
“We’re going to be very aggressive in adding athletic facilities,” Oscar said. “We’re trying to get up to speed as quickly as we can.”
The Seahawks will get to work on that at 12:01 a.m. on Aug. 15.
Contact Brad Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ