SMYRNA — Dwayne Ratcliffe was running late — literally — to a team meeting.
His Smyrna High football teammate, Cameron Edge, thought it was funny as Ratcliffe ran past him down the school hallway.
“He was like, ‘Our DPOY is late,’” Ratcliffe remembered. “I looked back and I was like, ‘No, I didn’t.’
“Then everybody kept saying it. I was like, ‘You all are lying to me.’ Coach finally posted it and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s really crazy. I really won it.’”
What Ratcliffe won was the title of Defensive Player of the Year in the five-team Class 3A District II.
It was a nice reward for all the hard work that Ratcliffe put in to switch from defensive end to linebacker for his senior season. He had been a third-team All-Stater at end.
Nobody was happier to see Ratcliffe back at linebacker than the Eagles’ other starting inside linebacker, Nathaniel Lesniczak. The two seniors will be key defenders when top-seeded Smyrna (8-2) hosts No. 4 William Penn (5-6) Friday at 7 p.m. in the DIAA Class 3A state quarterfinals.
Lesniczak and Ratcliffe have been friends and teammates since their Smyrna-Clayton Pop Warner days.
“He’s always been a hard worker,” Lesniczak said about Ratcliffe. “Having him at linebacker definitely helps a lot, for both of us. If I get to where I need to be, I know he’s behind me, getting the tackle.
“He did what he needed to do to get there (at linebacker) and he’s been phenomenal there.”
The pair of linebackers are the Eagles’ top tacklers. Lesniczak has a team-leading 93 tackles, including 18 for loss, with Ratcliffe contributing 73 tackles, with eight for loss.
Ratcliffe had been a linebacker up until two seasons ago when he moved to defensive end. It was after Smyrna fell to Sussex Central in last year’s state semifinals that Ratcliffe told Lesniczak he wanted to go back to linebacker.
“When the season ended, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m coming back to linebacker with you,’” said Ratcliffe. “He was like, ‘Yeah, you need to.’
“I worked all summer to gain muscle and drop weight just to be a linebacker — so they couldn’t say, ‘no.’ When I got there, they were a little surprised. I showed them what I could do and now I’m a starting linebacker.
“I was always a linebacker at heart,” he added.
At defensive end, the 5-foot-11 Ratcliffe weighed as much as 220 pounds. Now he’s right around 200.
Ratcliffe said playing with somebody he’s known for a long time makes a big difference out on the field. Lesniczak made second team all-district.
“We can rely on each other,” said Ratcliffe. “It’s all about trusting. I trust him, he trusts me. We’ve got each other’s back.”
Smyrna coach Mike Judy is happy with the way both players have performed.
He said Ratcliffe deserves a lot of credit for putting in the effort to become a good linebacker.
“All this is him,” said Judy. “The coaches have done a great job with him. But him transforming himself into a linebacker, at this level of football, was all him and his work ethic.
“He’s a guy that other teams have to account for. If you don’t put a blocker or a blocker and a half on him, you will know when he hits somebody.”
Lesniczak has piled up his tackle totals despite the fact that he stands only about 5-foot-8, 195 pounds. But that’s where being a wrestler comes in handy.
He said, just like on the mat, staying low and getting leverage on your opponent is still what matters most.
“Low man wins, basically,” said Lesniczak. “When I go against a six-foot running back ... I don’t really care how big somebody is, I know, if I go low, they can’t get as low as me.
“As long as you have the mindset that you can bring down whoever, you can bring down whoever.”
With the Eagles’ reputation as a high-flying offensive machine, their defense often gets overlooked. But that defense has held its own this fall.
Smyrna posted back-to-back shutouts early in the season and has allowed no more than eight points in each of its last three contests.
“Honestly, defensively, we don’t care what other people think,” said Lesniczak. “We just go out there with the same attitude every game.”
“We don’t like being the underdog but we know we are,” Ratcliffe said about the defense. “People are starting to realize that our defense is a big part of our team now. That’s what we like.
“We’re trying to get it to where at Smyrna, it’s not just all about offense but about defense, too.”
The NFHS Network is slated to show the Smyrna-William Penn, Woodbridge-Tower Hill, Dover-St. Georges, Indian River-St. Andrews and Sussex Central-Salesianum games this weekend. ... Smyrna’s Edge, who was the District II Offensive Player of the Year, threw 22 touchdown passes against only two interceptions. ... The last time Seaford played in the state tournament was in 1994 when it lost to St. Elizabeth in the Division II tourney. The Blue Jays fell to Salesianum in the 1993 Division I state finals. ... St. Georges running back Gi’Vonni Sanchez, a 1,000-yard rusher who had to sit out the first game against Dover, will be back for Saturday’s rematch. ... Delmar has lost its last two meetings with Wilmington Friends by a combined 47-0. ... Smyrna, Dover, Caesar Rodney and Cape Henlopen have all made the eight-team field for the DIAA Unified football state tournament.