On deck: 1989 Golden Knights’ special call from Delaware’s baseball hall

FAME bradley layfield jim hudson woody long banner trophy

From left, Sussex Central High School Principal Dr. Bradley Layfield and former baseball coaches Jim Hudson and Woody Long with the banner and trophy from Sussex Central’s 1989 unbeaten baseball season. In June, that Golden Knight squad will be the first high school team to be inducted into the Delaware Baseball Hall of Fame.

GEORGETOWN — There’s a picnic area at Frawley Stadium, home of the Wilmington Blue Rocks.

On June 13, there’ll be a “Reserved” sign for what likely will be a large contingent from the heart of Sussex County.

“We have the whole picnic area,” said Jim Hudson. “That is all reserved for Sussex Central.”

That evening, Sussex Central will make Delaware Baseball Hall of Fame history.

The unbeaten, state champion 1989 Golden Knight squad will become the first high school baseball team in Delaware to earn a niche in the hall that was established in 1994.

Two other Delaware teams logged undefeated seasons, Salesianum in 1978 and St. Mark’s in 1999.  Sussex Central is the first to get the call from the hall.

“It is quite an achievement,” said Woody Long, head coach of 1989 team. “We’re the first. You can’t really say more than that. And there are a lot of good teams and a lot of good players from Delaware.”

“It was one of those special things; great coaching, great parent support, and the guys just wanted it,” said Mark Abbott, a member of the 1989 squad. “It was an amazing run. I can’t believe it has been so long ago.”

“It is a great honor. It’s pretty neat, all of us going in together,” said second baseman Jeff Tidwell.

Sussex Central’s 21-0 dream season began with a daring spring break adventure to South Carolina.

It ended with a shutout conquest of William Penn in the Delaware Secondary Schools Athletic Association championship game. The DSSAA preceded the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association, which falls under the state Department of Education umbrella.

Heartbreak that ended the Knights’ 1988 season was their refuse-to-lose rally cry in 1989.

Sussex Central entered its 1988 regular-season finale with Seaford with a postseason berth within reach.

“Win and we are in,” said Mr. Long. “We jumped on them 5-0.”

Then stormy weather arrived. The game was called.

“We had to start all over two days later. We lost 2-1,” said Mr. Long. “And those boys cried. That’s when they took it from there.”

Golden Knights’ center fielder Andy Harrison vividly remembers that heartbreak.

“It was pretty clear my junior year after we lost to Seaford,” said Mr. Harrison. “After the game we were pretty upset. Mr. Long was talking, and I don’t know why at the time I said it but I said, ‘We’re not going to lose.’ Thankfully that is the way it turned out.”

The bounty list of 21 opponents in 1989 included the pelts of defending class 4A, 2A and A champions from South Carolina.

“We had not made the tournament the year before by a minuscule amount of points. I wanted to try to get some points. It was going to be stiff competition. I said, ‘Guys, I think you are the greatest. But we’re going south. And we could get our butts kicked,’” said Mr. Long. “To be honest we felt we’d come back 1-3. But they ended up beating every one of them. When we came out of there (4-0) that’s when Jimmy (Hudson) and I knew. Then they defeated the defending state champ from Maryland that year, Easton.”

Mr. Long was Sussex Central’s skipper from 1986-’90. Mr. Hudson previously had been SCHS head baseball coach during the Golden Knights’ golden days in the early and mid-1980s.

FAME players no flash

“I had been out of coaching for a couple years getting a master’s degree and all of that kind of stuff,” said Mr. Hudson. “Woody came to me in January of 1989 and says, ‘I think I have a pretty good team. I’d like you to come out and help us.’ I think he had a pretty good idea this was going to be special. I don’t think there was any doubt about that.”

Sussex Central lost one senior from the 1988 team. The dynamite 1989 squad consisted on 15 seniors, one junior and one sophomore call-up during the playoffs.

Practice, it is said makes perfect. The Knights toiled overtime, inside and outside.

“Jimmy stayed out on the infield with them. I can’t even envision home many balls he hit,” said Mr. Long.

“We stayed long after practice ended at 5:30. They wanted to stay,” said Mr. Hudson.

“We were 20-0 and getting ready to play William Penn in championship game,” said Mr. Long. “I said, ‘Guys, I don’t want to burn you out. Let’s just take it easy. I’ll let you go early.’ They had nothing of that.”

“Jimmy is a lot quieter than I am. He was the one that did all of the infield. They’d never miss a beat. I was more of the mouthpiece,” said Mr. Long.

“We had a lot of fun coaching together,” Mr. Hudson said. “Woody motivated the kids. He is a great motivator. My part was to make sure we were ready.”

“It’s interesting to think of the nucleus,” said Mr. Harrison, whose father Ralph Harrison also served as hitting coach. “We could hit. But the defense on that team was something. You couldn’t score any runs on us.”

The Knights had all bases covered.

“We had a lot of good coaches. A lot of boys on the team could just hit the cover off of the ball,” said Mr. Abbott. “And we had excellent pitching. We had a hard-baller, Mark Briggs, and we had a finesse pitcher, Mark Sammons. Briggs was a fire-baller. Sammons, his control was impeccable. He had this curve that would just fool you.”

The banner season was not void of some close calls.

“Caesar Rodney, those two games could very easily have gone either way,” said Mr. Long.

In the conference championship meeting, the Knights trailed 1-0 in the fourth inning before a packed ballpark.

“The sky was black. One of the cockiest boys on the team, Mark Briggs, he looked at me … and said, ‘I’m going to hit a home run for you.’ I swear it cleared the batting cage. That tied it up and that was it. It rained.”

Two days later the Knights completed unfinished business with a victory.

Foes unite as high school teammates

With players hailing from Georgetown and Millsboro, often opposing rivals at younger competition levels, the Golden Knights united in a team theme.

“They played against each other a lot, Millsboro and Georgetown. It was almost divided; 10 Millsboro and seven Georgetown,” said Mr. Long.

“It was a pretty interesting dynamics, chemistry on that team. We all hung out off the field too. We used to get together and play pickup games ourselves,” said Mr. Harrison, who works for his father’s poultry business today.

“We played opposite each other in Little League. We had Georgetown and we had Millsboro,” said Mr. Tidwell. “At Sussex Central we were one team. We were competitive. And I don’t know that we ever talked about going undefeated but we knew we had a lot of talent. We knew we had a chance to do something special and we wanted to take advantage of that and not let that opportunity bypass us. It doesn’t happen that often.”

Mr. Abbott was content with his reserve role.

“I didn’t play very much and that was OK. We had a lot of good talent,” said Mr. Abbott. “I hit a home run that year which was kind of fun. It was up in Milford. I got in. Apparently the wind was blowing out to left field and I got under one. You remember these things for the rest of your life.”

Given the deep tradition, Mr. Long remembers being forewarned when he took the coaching reins.

“When I first moved here, a legendary coach named Ron Dickerson looked at me and said, ‘You know you’re getting into a hornets’ nest. In Georgetown and Seaford, it goes God, family and baseball.’ And he said on any given year ‘that may not be the order,’” said Mr. Long.

Memories live on

That season remains a discussion topic today. In those days, games were a community happening.

“Back in those days with the game was much different than now,” said Mr. Harrison. “The patrons had their trucks backed up to the fence; they’ve got their coolers with their beer and it was a festive atmosphere.”

Mr. Long recalls one incident in particular.

It was a game against Caesar Rodney. Andy Harrison was on third. Mr. Long’s instructions were to go on any ball hit. A vicious liner fell in for a single. Amid some confusion, Harrison remained on third. That triggered a catcall.

“We used to call it Redneck Row. All of the trucks; and they were drinking,” said Mr. Long. “All of a sudden it got dead quiet and you could hear it, ‘Long, you are not only fat and ugly you’re dumb too.’ I felt like that tall. And Andy on third base calls me over and says, ‘Two out of three ain’t bad, coach.’ He never did tell me which two.”

Sussex Central High School Principal Dr. Bradley Layfield remembers that season well.

“I was nine years old when all of this was going on. My oldest brother was a sophomore and very good friends with the one sophomore Jeff Hudson, brought up for tournament,” said Dr. Layfield, a 1998 SCHS graduate. “It was a big deal. Everyone in the community was watching. A lot of these folks, they were sort of the folks I looked up to growing up.”

“I will tell you probably the proudest thing for me as a high school principal is seeing how many of these folks now are fathers of folks who are walking through the hallways right now,” Dr. Layfield said. “That brings me a lot of pride. That is part of Sussex Central, that family atmosphere.”

“A lot of them coach Little League, trying to help their kids learn the game,” said Mr. Hudson. “That’s exciting.”

“We just got along so well,” said Mr. Tidwell. “There was a mix lot of different characters, different types of people but everybody got along. We would always stay and take more ground balls and more fly balls, do some extra hitting. It was the dedication and the commitment from the guys on the team. We just loved being there. We loved playing baseball. And the bottom line it was fun. If you are not having fun at the end of the day you’re not going to be successful.”

1989 Golden Knights

Players: Jamie Evans, catcher; Mark Briggs, P/OF; Jeff Tidwell 2B; Mark Sammons, P; Shawn Hall, OF; Matt Mariner, P; Chad Rogers, 2B; Tony Oliphant, 3B; Andy Harrison, CF; Scotty Illian, SS; Jeff Clark, OF; Jeff Hudson, P; Tim Slade, 1B; Shannon Argo, 1B; Todd Mumford, DH; Jonathan Joines, OF; Mark Abbott, OF.

Coaches: Woody Long, Jim Hudson, Ralph Harrison.

Induction Day

Induction ceremonies start at 6 p.m. Game time for Blue Rocks game is 6:30 p.m.

Sussex Central High School 1989 baseball team is one of seven Hall of Fame inductees this year.

Hall of Fame history

The Delaware Baseball Hall of Fame was founded by the Delaware High School Baseball Coaches Association to honor coaches, managers, players, teams and other individuals (umpires, league administrators, writers, groundskeepers, etc.) who have made outstanding contributions to baseball in Delaware.

The Hall was founded in 1994. With the Class of 2016, it will have 121 members from all segments of the baseball community in Delaware.

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

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