Steve Persolio, once again head coach for the Lady Indians (after a one-year hiatus), has been in the game for a good long time.
This is his 12th year as either an assistant or a head coach.
Himself an Indian River graduate (1985), Persolio has spent most of his career at the high school as a special education teacher (English), but this is his third year as a full-time guidance counselor.
He spent seven years, from the 1992-93 season through 2000, with Coaches Pat Kelly and Kurt Bunting, alternately assistant coaching for either the boys or the girls, and helping with the football team as well.
When Kelly departed in 2001, Persolio said he wasn’t exactly looking for a promotion, but he got one anyway.
“I never sat out and said, ‘I want to be head coach,’” he pointed out. As an assistant, he said he was used to just throwing on a jersey and heading for the game, but he knew head coaching entailed a lot more.
He’d been helping coach Mike King run the freshman football team (no longer in existence). Persolio wasn’t sure just how many hats he could comfortably wear, but he said his wife had advised him to go ahead — just focus on one sport, though.
The 2001-2002 season was a good one for the Indians, as they went 15-7 and made the first round of the state tournament.
Persolio remembered that game, right down to the final seconds and the blocked shot that held the Indians to a 38-37 loss.
The team slumped in 2002-2003, as the Indians managed only nine wins.
After the season, his wife, Melody, gave birth to their second daughter, Kylie, to join two-year-old Tia.
Persolio got out altogether, hoping to spend more time with his young family.
The Indians may have missed his presence — they won just five games in 2003-2004, leading more than one person to pressure for Persolio’s return.
“Dale (Dale Steele, athletic director) and the kids must have asked me 50 times (to come back),” he said. “Ravin (Ravin Robinson, co-captain) asked me, and I said, ‘If you go to summer camp, I’ll think about it.’
“Ravin and Jess (Jessica Hudson, co-captain) were the only two I had ever coached,” Persolio pointed out.
He was hesitant to step back into a program where none of the players knew the drills he would be running, where no one knew his defensive sets, but Robinson held up her end of the bargain and Hudson rejoined the team as well.
“I ran the idea by my wife, and she said she was tired of me at home,” Persolio joked.
The Indians have rebounded with him back on the sidelines.
However, he recognized there were certain elements of the transition they would just have to keep working to overcome.
Persolio lamented the loss of player stats (computer crash) and a lack of game footage from last year. “We’re going blind into every game,” he stated. “It’s like I’m starting all over again.”
On the plus side, 2002 graduate/Lady Indians star Natalie Parsons has returned as a volunteer assistant.
“It’s nice to have Nat around, and we’re getting back to what we were trying to do (during his first go-round),” he said.
Assistant coach Sommer Chorman is another new twist for Persolio, but he said she knew what they wanted to do with the team. He gave Chorman credit for introducing some of her own ideas — ideas that were working.
Persolio credited Steele and football head coach Jim Bunting for their efforts in promoting the weight room and open gym, where Lady Indians were able to work on conditioning and fundamentals in the off-season.
He also noted the added benefit of the new summer window, Jun. 1 through Jul. 15, when the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association (DIAA) allowed coaches to work with their players (two at a time).
As Persolio noted, there aren’t many public basketball courts in the area and no facilities like those available to the baseball and softball players (the Pyle Center).
Many students skip basketball, awaiting the start of softball season in March.
“When we get athletes playing all three (field hockey, basketball and softball) — that’s when we get our best teams, but basketball is just not our most popular sport here,” he said.
However, he said he accepted the fact that other sports would always pull at his roster. “I don’t mind being last on the list,” Persolio stated. “I just hope they put out a good effort when they’re with me.”
Apparently, they’re doing just that, and as of midseason, the 2004-2005 Indians had nearly doubled their wins column from the previous year.
“The biggest thing right now is we’re winning the close ones,” Persolio said.
He coaches a “helping” defense, but with a variety of sets, and the Indians ability to adapt and slow their opponents has proven pivotal in more than one game this season.
He recognized it would be tough going as they approached the run through the Henlopen North division, but he planned to mix it up.
“Any bit of confusion we can throw at them is going to help,” he said.
Especially in girls basketball, Henlopen South teams like the Indians have always struggled to match up against the larger schools of the Henlopen North, according to Persolio.
He protested in favor of a Division I/Division II-type split. “When you go 25 years, and we’ve never had a Southern school in the championships, that’s a shame,” Persolio noted. “I figure I’ve got a few years left, so I’ll continue to work on that.”
Despite the South’s notable absence from the big game, he said the fans were great supporters, and kept coming to games even when the Indians were down.
“We’ve been blessed with awesome boosters,” he added. “That’s the only way we can survive right now, with the new high schools.”
Persolio said construction cost has pressured athletic budgets this year, but he was looking forward to getting into the new gym at the recently completed Indian River High.
In addition, there will be an auxiliary gym at the new school, which should let the J.V. teams practice at home more often (currently, they bus to the Indian River Educational Complex in Selbyville).
Persolio said he hoped the new school would draw some families to the area, and in the meantime, he said he was happy at Indian River.
“I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather teach, counsel or coach,” he said. “The kids are great.”