Seaford Middle School boys’ basketball coach Matt Spence was part of the Indian River team that won back to back DIAA state championships in 1980 and 1981. Coach Spence is now receiving the recognition well overdue when he recently became one of six Henlopen Conference athletes that will be inducted into the Delaware African American Sports Hall of Fame this year.
“Actually I feel it is a long time coming, I made mistakes that held me back and I needed to straighten some things out in my life,” said Spence.
While in middle school in the 1970’s Matt said coach Smack is one of the reasons for his success on and off the court, “Coach Smack brought us together and instilled the respect and drive to make us tough and want to win.” Matt did not play basketball until the seventh grade but the competitiveness is in his genetics. “My brother Antonio was better than me, I was challenged to get better than him. I would go outside and practice because I wanted to be better than my brother. By the time I was a freshman in high school I passed him.”
The Indian River High boys’ basketball team fell short to Wilmington in 1978 in the Delaware state finals. The disappointments changed when a group of players moved up from the middle school to join coach Dave Cook and Barry Lynch. “We all stayed together and when our junior year came we knew we had something special. Then in 1981 we were destined to repeat,” said Spence.
Spence, a forward and strong rebounder who averaged over 14 rebounds per game, almost did not play his senior year. “I started going to church and became deeply involved in my religion. I was thinking about not playing until coach Cook allowed me to do what I needed for church. I was then able to return my senior year,” Spence said.
The Indian River team played to an 18-3 overall season in both 1980 and 1981, “It was an exciting time for us and the community. People still talk about the excitement of our team today and it feels good to hear people reminisce.”
The 1980 state championship was a Henlopen Conference duel between Cape Henlopen and Indian River. “We always played Cape tough and they were a good team,” said Spence.
Cape defeated IR in the conference championship but after helping his team to defeat Middletown by scoring 23 points and then scoring double digits in the semi-final, a rematch was to decide the state champion. “We had injuries and we had to fight through but we came out the 66-65 winner,” Spence said. The championship was the first state title in any sport since the opening of Indian River High School in 1968.
“I felt like I was a leader on the team, on and off, I didn’t do a lot of horse play, I was very mature in high school. Always a serious guy,” said Spence.
His coaches were also no nonsense, which he continues to live by today. “They taught us about life, being responsible and I now am able to pass these lessons on to the players I coach. We were always serious, even in practice. I was a competitor and always wanted to win,” Spence said.
The team returned to the University of Delaware in 1981 and defeated Howard, 48-47, for the second state championship. On the road to the championship game in the quarterfinal round, Spence hit a half-court shot at the buzzer in the first quarter and scored double digits and in the semifinal game scored double digits while pulling in 14 rebounds. In the championship game, Spence tied the score with five minutes remaining.
Spence said the memories are forever, “I had good people around that kept scrapbooks and the games were always sold out with standing room only.”
He said he has proof to his players that he can play ball, “I can show the guys I actually did play the game well and what we accomplished.”
As for the time in his life that he felt the struggles and pain of poor decisions, “I made mistakes that held me back and I needed to straighten some things out in my life. I am not afraid to tell my players my story. All the mistakes that I have made it is in the past and I share what things I did and now I am better person and man. I am not ashamed and I let them know I made the dumb mistakes and thought I knew everything. Where I am now, I am very proud of my accomplishments. When I was a player I put in the work and now I put that work into my business, I want it to succeed and it also drives me as a coach.”
Spence has coached junior varsity basketball at Indian River and was an assistant at Sussex Tech and then at Wesley College in Dover. Coach Spence joined the Seaford High School basketball staff in 2018 and then took over the middle school team in 2019-2020. The team finished with a 6-5 record, losing four of the games by less than five points. Spence said, “I have been helping youth since 1985 and it is what I love to do, I am happy when I am with the kids.”
Spence also donates to the local programs that provide athletic wear and equipment, “I want to help them succeed.”
Matt Spence will be inducted along with Henlopen athletes Timothy Gray, Wallace Maull, Hollis Smack, Jr., Stephanie Tolson-Scott, and Chris Webb.