Coach Chuck Donohue left Buena Regional High School for Southern Regional in 1998.
Each preseason, the teams scrimmage. There are Buena players now who were babies or not even born when Donohue made the Chiefs a perennial Cape-Atlantic League contender.
"Those (Buena) kids don't remember who I am," Donohue said with a smile. "I sense that."
The 65-year-old Donohue is now firmly identified with Southern Regional, which is not something many local high school fans would have predicted 15 years ago, mostly because of Donohue's previous coaching success and Southern's lack of a football tradition.
Donohue was inducted Thursday night into the Shore Football Coaches Foundation Hall of Fame at halftime of the 36th annual U.S. Army Gridiron Football Classic at Toms River North.
Donohue is 226-151-4 in 39 seasons overall, including 87-68 at Southern. The Rams finished 9-3 and lost in the South Jersey Group V final to Williamstown 43-20 last season.
A longtime Hammonton resident, Donohue now lives in Manahawkin. He began his coaching career in 1974 at St. Joseph in Hammonton. Donohue then coached at Haddon Heights from 1981-85 and Buena Regional from 1986-97. He led Buena to the 1988 S.J. Group II title. Donohue is the first New Jersey football coach to lead four different teams to sectional finals.
"I've been lucky to go into places that haven't been successful and build them up to where they've been well respected," Donohue said. "The support (at Southern) as been incredible. The backing of parent groups and alumni groups has been incredible."
Donohue took over a Southern program that had long struggled. This was no routine rebuilding job. The Rams play in one of South Jersey's toughest leagues - the Shore Conference A South, which features perennial contenders such as Toms River North, Brick Memorial and Jackson Memorial.
"I knew (Southern) was going to be my last move," Donohue said. "When I got there, I realized it was going to be a much tougher job than I thought going in. It only took one year of games to see how good the competition was."
Eric Fierro, now a football assistant and the Southern head boys basketball coach, was a senior in 1998 and played for Donohue's first Rams team.
The Rams finished 2-8 that season, but Donohue made an immediate impact.
"He's a pretty intense and serious guy," Fierro said. "He expected us to win. He acted and prepared like we were going to win. I remember walking out to games, and feeling that he really believes we were going to win. We had to prepare and match that belief."
Donohue changed the culture at Southern Regional for all sports. The football team began to work year-round on weight lifting and conditioning. The Rams have had six straight .500-or-better seasons, a stretch during which they have gone 44-19. Southern also reached the S.J. Group IV final in 2008, losing to undefeated Mainland Regional 21-14.
"In our league, if we weren't a superbly conditioned team we would have zero chance to win," Donohue said. "The secret to our program is not me or anything else. It's commitment in the weight room."
Now all Southern teams follow the football program's lead.
Donohue runs training sessions for all Southern athletes summer weekdays at 7 a.m. and 9 a.m.
"It doesn't matter that he's the football coach," Fierro said. "He works with the wrestlers, soccer players, the track guys. He works with all the girls programs. He's at the school the earliest and leaves the latest."
Donohue doesn't like to talk about himself. He said he made the Hall of Fame just because he met the criteria.
Fierro is part of a close football coaching staff that includes longtime assistants Matt Abbato, Dennis Pidgeon and Andrew Beckett. Donohue's son, Chuck Donohue Jr., was an assistant but is now Southern's athletic director.
The Rams should contend again this upcoming season. They will feature wide receiver and defensive back Mike Gesicki, one of the state's most highly recruited players.
Donohue jokes with his assistants about retiring, but the reality is his days at Southern are winding down.
"I'd like to say forever," he said when asked how much longer he intended to coach. "I feel great. I'm excited about everything we're doing. I don't want it to end. But I know it's there."
Another Southern coach also was inducted into the Shore Football Coaches Foundation Hall of Fame on Thursday.
The foundation recognized Ron Emmert, who coached the Rams from 1972-86, for his coaching and contributions to high school football.
Emmert led the Rams to a 1972 Shore Conference division title.
Monmouth County beat Ocean County 19-7 Thursday night. The game, which was played in steamy conditions at Toms River North, featured many of the top recently graduated seniors from Monmouth and Ocean County high schools. The game-time temperature was 94 degrees. Lightning delayed the contest for 30 minutes.
Barnegat High School defeated Freehold Borough 22-7 to win the Shore Conference 7-on-7 title before Thursday night's game.
Barnegat quarterback Cinjun Erskine threw three touchdown passes. The University of Miami and the University of Massachusetts have offered scholarships to Erskine, who will be a junior this fall.
"This proves to us we can be the best," Erskine said. "I'm glad our offense worked. This shows coach (Rob Davis') scheme works. This gives us momentum we can build on."
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