LAUREL — Laurel High didn’t have a choice in the matter.
But, if you asked Bulldogs’ football coach Joey Jones, he would have told you Laurel would be in the new Class 2A.
“When they first mentioned splitting up into three,” said Jones, “my first instinct was, ‘I think we can compete at this 2A.’”
Instead, though, the Bulldogs found themselves in Class 1A, with other small schools or programs that are trying to rebuild.
Jones said, in the long run, it’s probably a good thing for Laurel right now.
“The more people talked about it, I did find some benefit in it,” he said. “It’s one of those things where, they were going to put us where they were going to put us. We’re going to play who they make us play.
“But we wanted to make sure we schedule up when we can. If we go do what some people are saying we can do — no matter what your opinion is about the 1A — if we can go handle our business against some of these big boys, then, no matter what happens, it can be validated.”
The Bulldogs already proved themselves once by downing 2A Sussex Tech, 41-8, in their season opener last Friday.
They’ll get another shot at a 2A squad when they head north to face Brandywine on Friday at 7 p.m.
Whatever division Laurel ended up in, it had a lot of reasons to feel good heading into the fall.
After going 4-2 in last year’s abbreviated campaign, the Bulldogs have a roster that includes 13 seniors. It was the fifth straight season that Laurel has finished with exactly four wins.
In this case, however, it gave the Bulldogs their first winning season since they reached the DIAA Division II state finals in 2014.
Against Sussex Tech last week, Laurel trailed, 8-7, in the second quarter before running off 34 unanswered points.
“We started off in a battle,” said Jones. “They were bigger than I think the film showed so that slight adjustment, mentally and physically, we had to overcome.
“But the kids were in a battle early and I think they got better. I think that was the most important thing of the entire night. We were neck and neck, we take the lead, give it back. And by the time we took it again, our kids were in a really good spot to not give it back.”
Just before halftime, with the Bulldogs leading 14-8, the Ravens had a good chance to at least tie the contest. But freshman Tate Walls came up and tackled a Sussex Tech ball carrier inside the 10 on the final play of the half.
“That was a really important stop for us,” said Jones.
Senior running back Javier White had a big opening night, catching a pair of touchdown passes from quarterback Kaden Shockley and running for another TD. White was a first-team All-Henlopen South all-purpose player last fall.
“Javier’s just a ball player,” said Jones. “He’s a kid that can do whatever you ask, whenever you ask him to do it and he’s going to do so with a smile on his face. He’s certainly an asset and a total weapon for us.”
Also among the returning players for Laurel is two-way, second-team All-South lineman J.J. Cannon as well as junior Evan Collins, a second-team All-South linebacker.
Shockley, a junior, tossed three TD passes last week while Brady Lee, Omori’Yon Cannon and Pat Belle all scored touchdowns in the victory.
A year ago, the Bulldogs didn’t get to finish their season on the field when their game against Delmar was canceled because of COVID-19 issues. Not playing the game probably didn’t keep Laurel from making the state tournament, though.
“It seems like after it all shook out, we still were going to be the odd man out even if we did go 5-2 with a win over Delmar,” said Jones. “At the end of the day, it seemed like we needed to beat Woodbridge anyway, and we didn’t. So there was a little bit of peace there.
“But it was nice, and very, very fun to be in the conversation and say, ‘Hey, we could be one win away from sneaking in this thing.’”
Even though the season has just started, Laurel will get the chance to win a trophy on Friday night. With both Laurel and Brandywine nicknamed the Bulldogs, the two schools started giving a ‘Battle for the Bone’ trophy to the winner of the game a few years ago.
Of course, the way Laurel started out, it looks like it might be a contender for the first Class 1A state championship trophy by the end of the season, too.
All Jones knows is that his players have grown up over the last couple years.
“When we first got here, we were young,” he said. “We had a lot of freshmen on the field just two years ago. Now our young guys aren’t young any more. I think we’re in a good spot here.
“I think it’s exciting to get out of the gate like that but we’ve got another challenge coming up this week.”