Paul Rodio first traveled down Cedar Avenue to St. Augustine Prep in the Richland section of Buena Vista Township 47 years ago.
The Hammonton resident has made the trip countless times since then.
Although the route he takes from his home to St. Augustine hasn’t changed, most of everything else has. The school, now renowned for its academic and athletic excellence, isn’t the same as when Rodio first arrived as a freshman in 1966.
He and the basketball team are a big reason why.
Rodio, 60, stands on the verge of history. The St. Augustine Prep boys basketball coach can become the winningest coach in South Jersey history tonight when the Hermits host Camden in an Olympic-Cape Challenge game at 7:30 p.m.
Rodio, who is in his 36th season, boasts a career record of 775 wins and 215 losses. He is tied with former Camden coach Clarence Turner, who retired after the 2008 season with a 775-145 record.
“We were lucky,” Rodio said of his coaching career. “We had some (talented) kids and instantly we were pretty good. We just started building from there.”
St. Augustine, located in the backwoods off Route 40, consisted of just one building back when Rodio was a freshman. Less than 100 students attended. The school’s tiny gym was located in what is now a chapel.
After graduating from Villanova University, Rodio returned to St. Augustine and started teaching history in 1975. He took over the basketball program in 1977-78. Rodio also serves as the school’s director of development.
“I’m happy all of the wins are at St. Augustine,” Rodio said. “I feel honored to be a part of the people who put St. Augustine together.”
Rodio’s teams have been a force from the start. He’s led the Hermits to four state titles (1982, 1999, 2004 and 2011).
The basketball team’s success helped make the school known all over the state and the world. Two former players — Andrew Sullivan and Pops Mensah-Bonsu — played for Great Britain in the London Olympics last summer.
The school has grown throughout the years. The 118-acre campus consists of multiple buildings, including The Louis and Joseph Buondonno Forum, which comes complete with a fireplace and an Olympic-size pool.
Rodio is coaching in his third gym, this one named after him. More than 650 students now attend the school.
“The place is ingrained in him, and he in it,” said long-time assistant coach and 1982 Prep graduate Dave Catalana. “I’m biased, but you can look at parallel paths when it comes to the success of the basketball team and how the school has grown.”
Rodio has won with all types of players. The 1999 team featured the 6-foot-7 Sullivan. The 2011 team starred 5-8 guard Isaiah Morton from Vineland, who know plays for Marist University.
This year’s team doesn’t feature an NCAA Division I-bound player but is 17-2 and again a South Jersey and Cape-Atlantic League title contender.
Rodio is demonstrative on the sideline. Fans can tell how intense the game is by when Rodio rips his tie off.
“He has a fire for the game,” senior Prep guard David Sullivan said. “He brings it every day in practice, and that rubs off on his players.”
Rodio is emotional. He’s cried after wins and losses.
But it’s that emotion and passion that is his greatest strength as a coach and has allowed him to connect with players for more than 30 years.
“He understands the emotional side of the game,” said Scott Greenman, who grew up in Linwood, played at the Prep from 1999-2002 and is now director of basketball operations for Georgetown University. “Throughout the years, whether it’s been Division I, II or III players, he’s gotten his teams to play hard for one another. He could motivate you and make you feel invested.”
Sometimes, Rodio yells at players. Sometimes, he pats them on the back.
“Most of time he thought it was best to get it done by yelling at you,” Greenman said with a laugh. “But you can tell he’s invested in it. He cries in front of you. He laughs in front of you. You know he’s not trying to hide anything. He’s real.”
Rodio came close to leaving St. Augustine a few times during his tenure. He almost took a job at Hammonton High School in the early 1990s.
The rare times he has come close to leaving, Rodio said his wife Bonnie has talked him out of it.
“She thought I was crazy some of the times I wanted to leave,” he said. “The Augustinians treated me well. I felt at home. I never felt like I was going to work. She would always say, ‘before you leave and go somewhere else, just remember how happy you are.’”
Rodio cannot only break the record against Turner’s former team but it’s also fitting that the opportunity comes at the Olympic-Cape Challenge. The showcase event benefits the Shoot Down Cancer Foundation, which was started by Catalana and benefits the Oncology Division of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
The event epitomizes the family atmosphere that surrounds the St. Augustine program. One of Rodio’s favorite sayings is “surround yourself with good people.”
In addition to Catalana, current assistant John Ricci as well as long-time former assistants Mike Rizzo and Tony Iaconelli will volunteer their time all weekend, as will their families. Many other people associated with the basketball program will volunteer or donate money.
“I’ve been blessed,” Rodio said. “To be part of an institution, for people to associate my name with St. Augustine, means I’ve accomplished some things.”
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