From the sports editor: Simonetti’s biggest victory

While the Senators were putting together a 9-1 regular season, third-year head coach Rudy Simonetti and his wife, Katie, were trying to figure out if newborn daughter Rhylee had a very serious form of cancer. Submitted photo

DOVER — This was easily the biggest game of Rudy Simonetti’s Dover High football coaching career,

And he wanted the Senators to beat Sussex Central in the semifinals of the DIAA Division I state tournament as much as anyone last November.

But compared to the fact that his three-month daughter, Rhylee, had just been diagnosed with retinoblastoma — a cancer of the eye — football wasn’t always the first thing on his mind that week.

“It was a really, really awesome game played by both teams,” Simonetti said about Dover’s tough 21-20 loss. “And for those two hours, for me, I enjoyed it. I kind of got a chance to get away from things for a little bit and take a breath of fresh air.

“Obviously, you hate losing,” he said. “And we lost to a great team. Physically I was there but my mind wasn’t there. It was with her all the way.”

With her arrival about 24 hours before the Senators opened preseason camp, Rhylee Simonetti’s young life was intertwined with Dover’s 2018 football season from the start.

More than ever, Rudy Simonetti understands that family is always going to take priority over football. Delaware State News file photo

While the Senators were putting together a 9-1 regular season — their best since 2013 — their third-year head coach, Simonetti, and his wife, Katie, were trying to figure out if their newborn daughter had a very serious form of cancer.

The fact that she was finally diagnosed with retinoblastoma just as Dover’s football season was coming to a crescendo was merely coincidence, of course. It just seemed fitting somehow.

Katie Simonetti knows all too well about the dangers of the disease, which affects about only 300 children in the U.S. every year.

The 25-year-old special education teacher lost one of her eyes to retinoblastoma when she was three. Katie knew there was about a 50-50 chance her child would have it.

At first, though, doctors cleared Rhylee. But then specialists in Philadelphia detected a small tumor behind her right eye.

“The fear is the unknown — what to do, what’s coming next,” said Katie, who teaches at Booker T. Washington. “There was a lot of stress.

“They told us from the beginning that this situation is a rollercoaster basically. There’s highs and there’s lows. It is what it is. You’ve just got to, as Rudy would say, ‘plow through.’

“It was like, save her life and then her vision,” she added. “That’s kind of what they kept telling us. It is a very aggressive cancer because it is right by the brain.”

Rhylee had to begin six months of chemotherapy, which was administered over a couple days in Philadelphia each month. Submitted photo

“As a family, you’re never prepared for this,” said Rudy. “You never want to hear that your child has cancer.”

Rhylee had to begin six months of chemotherapy, which was administered over a couple days in Philadelphia each month. For Simonetti, that meant spending time away from his football players during their open week before the week of the state tournament game.

“I kept it quiet up until our bye week,” said Simonetti. “But eventually I had to tell them because they need to know where their head coach is.”

But while the Senators’ football season ended with the loss to Central on Nov. 23, the Simonettis’ waiting and worrying only dragged on.

Rhylee would have to finish her six months of chemo before doctors knew for sure whether it had been successful.

Finally, one day in early April, the family sat before a large group of doctors, who gave them the news.

“It’s actually pretty intimidating,” said Katie. “They all come in at once. There’s a big crowd of them. They come in with their folders. They showed us where her eye was, where it is now, if there’s any new tumors, what they did to it.”

Rudy’s message on Twitter was a little more to the point.

“Rhylee is officially cancer free — she is ALL IN!! #ALLin #RhyleeStrong @DoverHSFootball,” he tweeted on April 3.

At Rhylee’s latest appointment, Katie said doctors remained optimistic.

“Basically, it was, ‘There’s light at the end of the tunnel,’” she said. “So that was good. … The more good news I hear, I feel better.”

The Simonettis know there’s a chance, at least for a few more years, that Rhylee could have more tumors. So they’ll continue to worry, at least a little bit, but remain optimistic that their daughter is on a good path.

The ordeal has left Rudy more philosophical about life.

“God put a big-time mission in front of me — bigger than football, bigger than teaching,” said the 36-year-old. “That was to get her healthy.

“I can’t say enough about the support from the community here at Dover High School. Katie and I were blown away by it. … And obviously from the kids. I’ve gotten text messages from (Dover) kids that I don’t even coach with their support for us.

“Football, obviously on Friday nights it’s business,” said Rudy. “But, after that, football is family. I was really touched by the support. It’s nothing easy, but Rhylee is a tough kid. She beat it. We just have to monitor the situation from here on out.”

Rhylee is part of this Dover football season too, of course.

While the Senators were working out around the field on Wednesday, the 11-month old was in her dad’s arms, squirming and babbling like any other kid her age.

More than ever, Rudy Simonetti understands that family is always going to take priority over football.

That was something that really hit him on that night last November when he came home to his ailing three-month old after losing a state tournament game.

“In a way, one weight was lifted off my shoulders, because the season just ended,” said Ruddy. “But now my full effort and energy were to get her healthy.

“I’m very relaxed but, when I coach, I tend to get a little hot-headed. I guess that’s the Italian-(New) Jersey in me. But I think I’m starting to realize that, is it even worth that? What happened with Rhylee really put it in perspective for me.”

Odds & ends

• Smyrna High linebacker Debo Williams tweeted on Friday that he’s been offered a scholarship by the University of Delaware. The senior already had offers from Blue Hen CAA rivals Richmond, Stony Brook and Albany.

• Former Dover High and Delaware State pitcher Garrett Lawson, a 19th-round draft pick of the L.A. Angels last month, is in Arizona after signing with the club. But the left-hander is not expected to pitch any more this summer as he works on his strength and adds some weight.

• The Huff family donated a check to the Dover High lacrosse program this week in memory of their son, Matt. A 2009 Dover grad, Matt Huff was just 28 when the scooter he was riding was hit by a car while he was visiting Florida in April.

A standout athlete, student and musician, Huff was a lifeguard at both Kent Swim Club and Bethany Beach as well as volunteering with a number of organizations.

• With standout shooting guard Ithiel Horton announcing this week that he was transferring from Delaware to Pittsburgh, it’s funny to remember that it was only a couple years ago, the New Jersey native said, “I love this state, I kind of wish I was from here.”

“Delaware sits perfect,” Horton told DSN reporter Tim Mastro during Slam Dunk to the Beach in 2016. “People kind of overlook Delaware. I used to drive past Delaware every day and was like ‘Wow I wonder what that campus is like.’ So when they offered me I knew I wanted to go visit. The facilities are great, academics are really good and the basketball team is coming up, Coach (Martin) Ingelsby is a great coach.”

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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