Senator seniors have grown with their coach

Dover High seniors Tkai Perry (left) and Vonnie Peace share a laugh during a high school football media day on Thursday. Delaware State News/Ben Heck

DOVER — Tkai Perry says his first meeting with his new coach, Rudy Simonetti, left him with one distinct thought in 2016.

“Don’t make him mad,” the Dover High center said with a laugh. “Do whatever he says.

“I was a little scared, a little intimidated,” Perry added. “He’s a pretty intense guy when you first meet him.”

“A lot of people were scared of him,” agreed fellow Senator senior Jalen Hill. “But we were coming off a losing season so we were just looking for things to change. We believed in him and trusted in him.”

That was four years ago, when Simonetti was hired as the head coach of a Dover football program that was coming off a 4-6 season.

Dover football Coach Rudy Simonetti. Delaware State News fiile photo

Finally, last fall, in Simonetti’s third season, the Senators saw the changes they believed in. Dover went 9-2, losing only to eventual DIAA Division I state champion Sussex Central twice.

Now the Senators want to see if they can make the state tournament in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2000 and ‘01. And it will be Simonetti’s first group of Dover players — the ones who were freshmen four years ago — leading the way as seniors now.

While they may have been a little intimidated by Simonetti’s no-nonsense approach at first, the players say they also grew to understand where the New Jersey native was coming from.

Running back Vonnie Peace remembers, at the end of his eighth-grade school, Simonetti came to Central Middle School to talk to his future players.

“When Coach first came here, I thought he was a mean coach,” said Peace. “He always looked mad. … Then when he started talking, that’s kind of when we built that bond.

“He’s serious. Everything he does, he’s serious. No joking around. He wants everything run right. We have fun a lot, but we handle business first then have fun later.”

Dover players (left to right) Tkai Perry, Jalen Hill, Gabe Evans and Vonnie Peace pose with fourth-year Senators’ coach Rudy Simonetti.

“We’ve been able to push through adversity,” said receiver Gabe Evans. “We showed as a team that we could come from a losing record to a winning record. We showed brotherhood. Like our coach did the ‘All in’ motto. That’s really a big thing. We’re all together as a team, not just one.”

Certainly last November’s crushing, 21-20, loss to Central in the Division I state semifinals was a bonding experience.

Dover couldn’t hold onto a 20-8 halftime lead in that game. The Golden Knights pulled out the victory on a touchdown pass with just 31.7 seconds left.

Hill, who was on the field for that heart-breaking TD, says he thinks about it every day.

“It happened in slow motion really,” he said. “It was a hard thing.

“It definitely motivates us. We talk about it every day. We just want it (a state title) bad. That’s what we’re chasing this year.”

“I think about it a lot,” said Perry. “You think about all the missed opportunities you had during the game — what you messed up on, what you could have done better. When (you’re in the weight room and) you don’t think you can get it, it pops in the back of your head and helps you get that last rep.”

Senator players (left to right): Gabe Evans, Jalen Hill, Tkai Perry and Vonnie Peace clown around during a photoshoot.

Not surprisingly, Simonetti’s slogan for this season is ‘unfinished business.’ The Senators open their schedule on Sept. 7 with a 10:30 a.m. showdown at highly-regarded Hodgson.

Simonetti, only Dover’s fifth head coach since 1986, says he wasn’t trying to scare anyone when he first met his new players four years ago. He was just trying to show that he meant business.

The 36-year-old said he’s never tried to be anything but sincere with those players.

“I learned long ago, be yourself,” said Simonetti, who has a record of 14-17 at Dover. “I also learned that kids are kids, no matter where you are. You’ve just got to set that tone when you first get here — and kind of show them more about you personally as the months and years go on. It’s got to be consistent.”

This year’s players, especially the seniors, say they see that human side of their coach now. They’re excited to go out and play for him one more season.

“He’s very caring,” said Hill. “He takes care of everybody around him. … like we’re his kids.”

“He’s still an intense guy but I know it’s all for the better,” said Perry. “He really wants to see us succeed. I have a lot of respect for him.”

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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