MIDDLETOWN — Robert Denson never forgets the conversation.
Middletown football coach Tim Strenfel pulled Denson aside during a June camp in Rockland County, complimenting his soon-to-be senior running back on his play.
Strenfel told Denson that he could be “something special” with the right mind-set and training.
The talk was enough to motivate Denson to push himself to the next level. Denson was one of the stars of Middletown’s next camp in Glen Spey, and his effort and attitude have carried over into the season.
Denson and Middletown are off to a 2-0 start. The 5-foot-7, 160-pound Denson has rushed for 338 yards, 10 yards shy of his 2018 total, heading into Middletown’s Section 9 Class AA showdown at Pine Bush on Friday night.
“I just want to keep proving it,” Denson said, referencing his chat with Strenfel. “It's my last go-around in high school football so I just want to come out with a bang and finish good.”
Denson’s statistics, including a career-high 222 yards on only 13 carries against Kingston last week, stand out. But it’s his overall outlook that impresses Strenfel.
Denson rushed for 116 yards in Middletown’s 34-0 season-opening win over Minisink Valley but didn’t reach the end zone. After his teammates scored, Denson was right in the mix celebrating their touchdowns.
“Last year's Robert Denson would have been all (sulky) about that,” Strenfel said. “This year, he was cheering the kids on and his hands were going up. It was a great feeling, seeing him get to that level.
“Rob has changed a lot over the offseason. Rob has done everything right. He's doing everything on the field and everything off the field that you want a senior running back who has that leadership and has those skills to do.”
Strenfel isn’t the only one noticing a different Denson. The Middies name a fourth game captain every week from the previous week’s performance. Denson earned that distinction for the Kingston game. He made a concerted effort to spend more time with his five returning offensive linemen this summer. He hasn’t bought them dinner yet, but that could change if Middletown is victorious Friday and improves to 3-0 for the first time since 1996.
“Just coming out on the field and working with them,” Denson said. “I wanted to build a stronger bond.”
Denson credits his offensive line for his early-season success. He describes his running style to that of Jets back Le’Veon Bell, patiently waiting for a hole to open.
“Then, I just burst through,” he said.
The gaps may be harder to find against Pine Bush, which is coming off a shutout of Monroe-Woodbury. Denson is anticipating a physical game.
“This is a big test,” Denson said. “This is a big game and we have to prove ourselves. We are both 2-0. We both want to win.”