Polytech’s Board of Education unanimously voted to leave the Henlopen Conference after the 2020-21 season following a lengthy discussion at their school board meeting Tuesday night.
Polytech was forced to forfeit their final two games of the football season after they started the season with just 58 of their 1,192 students trying out for the team. Through through injuries and attrition just 16 would have been available for their Week 9 game with Milford.
Panthers Head Coach Robert Mason spoke about the injuries at the meeting.
“Those injuries were season-ending because we had two games left. If a person claims they have a headache, we have to put them on concussion protocol that takes them 2-3 weeks before they can be cleared again. We had injuries that were pre-existing that were exposed through football. We had a lot of soft-tissue injuries that are lingering. What we did as a coaching staff, we put the best foot we had forward. After the Cape game, I was provided by our medical staff an injury support. We looked at each other as coaches, and thought what are we going to put on the field?”
Polytech’s school board considered three options before Tuesday’s vote. Staying in the Henlopen North, attempting to petition the Henlopen North to let them opt-out for football only, or exiting the conference entirely.
Getting the opt-out requires 75% of the conference members (12 of 16) to agree. Hammond said his last attempt only netted 3 "yes" votes, and he vented his frustration at the other downstate public schools, as they felt forced to take the leave-entirely option.
“We here are trying to take care of our student athletes. If the Henlopen Conference cannot see that, then there is a problem at that level.”
Besides potentially setting a precedence, one concern the schools might have is that Polytech football has been a playoff points ATM for opponents. Because they’re a Division 1 school, a victory over them gives their opponents the same 6 points they’d get for defeating top-ranked Hodgson, although the Silver Eagles would give a better chance for a bonus point or two down the line.
“Some people are looking at those bonus points over and above the safety of the student athletes.”
Coach Mason, who took over the program this year, said while his squad might be short on numbers, and often in experience, that doesn’t mean they’re not trying like every other team.
“They come here full of heart and full of commitment. I coached at Caesar Rodney before, and I’ve told those kids to their faces that Polytech students give me everything they have. I’ll take those kids over those athletes any day.”
The decision to leave the Henlopen Conference might ultimately benefit the football team, but it’s a decision that could have major ramifications in sports Polytech has thrived in over the years.
The Panthers won the state softball championship as recently as 2015, and current volleyball and girls soccer player Jenna McDuff challenged the board to consider more than just football.
“What does the message send to our future athletes as we leave? That Polytech isn’t good enough to compete in the Henlopen Conference? My answer to that is yes, we are. We have teams to prove it: boys soccer, field hockey, volleyball, baseball, girls soccer, lacrosse, softball, tennis, all of those teams have qualified to DIAA playoffs in the past five years. My last concern is will this move deter future athletes to even applying to come to Polytech. They may choose to stay at their home district to play sports. We know that Polytech provides quality academic instruction, and that’s always a good reason to choose Polytech, but for athletes it makes a difference. In conclusion, I ask that we have pride in all Polytech sports, football included, and stay in the Henlopen Conference.”
2007 alum, soccer coach, and social studies teacher Cameron Sweeney said the board’s decision was based upon a minority of Polytech athletes.
“Of those 1,200 students, are we going to change their competitive nature, their time spent on the bus, their academic profiles, the teams and people they play against, for the decisions of 58, 22, or 16 football players?”
That time on the bus references what the next move for Polytech could be. Now that they decided to leave the Henlopen Conference, Polytech will be forced to find a new athletic home.
There are options going forward, at least on paper.
Polytech could become non-conference school, at which point every sport would have no guaranteed games, so filling a schedule could be tricky, especially if their former colleagues in the Henlopen Conference hold a grudge.
Poly could join the Diamond State Athletic Conference, a New Castle County-based league of mostly charter schools, that does include the private schools of Archmere and Red Lion. The only schools south of the canal are M.O.T. Charter and First State Military Academy.
Or they could try to join the Independent conference, but all of those schools, including Tower Hill and Sanford, are again in New Castle County, and they’re all private schools.
Mark Coté, the father of three students with a combined 21 varsity letters, put the blame for Polytech’s dilemma on the lottery system they instituted if the school’s applications exceeded its available slots. That meant that an athlete who might want to play for a certain Polytech program would have no guarantee they could even get in the front door, a problem that doesn’t exist at many schools in Kent & Sussex Counties. Between that point and likely extended travel, Polytech’s athletic success could wane.
“The lottery changed the school climate, but I think this will make a big difference in the future of Polytech. You won’t see it next year with students transferring or not coming, but several years down the road.”
This is not to say Polytech hasn’t had success stories despite their 28-86 record in football since 2008.
Diana Stubbs is an English Teacher at Polytech, and the mother of the team’s center, Dylan.
“He started Polytech a shy and assuming kid, lacking confidence, and he’s going to graduate a strong, resilient, dedicated young man who isn’t afraid of hard work, and confident in his abilities, and that’s because of football.”
One person optimistic that leaving the Henlopen Conference would be best is former football coach Robert Gilmore.
“I see this change not only as an opportunity to save the Friday night magic, but an opportunity to take our athletic department in a new direction, and continue to be unique as Polytech has.
What could a post-Henlopen Conference Polytech look like?
For the football team, there’s a distinct chance football scheduling could actually become easier.
Due to their struggles, they could become a popular target for Division 2 teams to want to play them, since they’d still technically be a Division 1 squad, giving opponents the opportunity for those juicy playoff points.
Their football program more closely resembles teams like Laurel and Seaford, so if those match-ups are set up, Polytech would be more competitive than Henlopen North games against Sussex Central and Smyrna, who have combined to win the last 4 state championships.
The other teams might still be able to find opponents due to their success, but there could be more out-of-state games, and certainly more trips to New Castle County then they do now, something Steve Seip, the father of two soccer players, noted.
“For the non-Friday Night Lights sports, most of the games start at 4 o’clock on Monday-Thursday. So now I have kids travelling up there, getting out of school early, or if it’s a late game, it’s a late night.”
Ultimately, the move was made for football, looking to combat the injury problem. It’s not a sport Polytech has had a ton of success at, but because of it, Polytech's about to hit the long road, assuming they can find a home.