Southern Regional High School's displays of its former athletes include Clark Harris' NFL helmet, among many other memorabilia.

Edward Lea

STAFFORD TOWNSHIP — When Kathleen Cornelius watches sports on TV, her young sons notice that she seems to know a lot of the athletes personally.

Cornelius, a math teacher in her 20th year at Southern Regional High School, has seen several of her students go on to become standout professional or collegiate athletes — an inordinate amount.

“It’s, ‘Mom knows this one. Mom knows that one,’” Cornelius said of 11-year-old JT and 8-year-old Jake. “I worry because they’re both going to be involved in sports and they just see it (as) commonplace. This is what happens. You go to high school and you end up on TV.”

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Some schools have one or two alumni, maybe a small handful, starring at the college or professional levels. Southern’s recent alumni include an NFL player, two NASCAR drivers, an NCAA champion wrestler, three NCAA Division I All-American runners and several other college standouts.

There are plenty of explanations, but everyone at Southern seems to agree on one thing: It’s no coincidence.

“We didn’t just have (natural) athletes walking the halls,” said Kim DeGraw-Cole, who was Southern’s athletic director from 1984 to 2010. “They weren’t just born into athletic talent.”

There is no secret formula, though. It’s a commitment to success at all levels.

“Academics are most assuredly first and foremost,” said principal Eric Wilhelm, a former wrestler himself, “but everyone here has a very good understanding that athletics, day in and day out, put us on the map. It gets the Southern Regional name out there.”

Illustrious history

Southern has an illustrious sports history, but since 2000, a particularly large number of future athletes have passed through its halls. The most notable include: Clark Harris (class of 2002), long-snapper for the Cincinnati Bengals; Glenn Carson (2009), starting linebacker for Penn State University; Georgetown University’s Chelsea Cox (2010) and the University of Michigan’s Danielle Tauro (2007) and Jillian Smith (2009), all NCAA All-Americans in track and field; Ryan Truex (2010) in the NASCAR Nationwide Series; and Frank Molinaro (2007), an NCAA wrestling champion last year for Penn State.

That doesn’t even include the school’s most famous former attendees — current NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Martin Truex Jr. (1998) and former major-league baseball player Doc Cramer, who was a five-time All-Star in the 1930s and 1940s.

Success breeds success. Harris has returned to the school to mentor students. Carson gave an emotional pregame speech at a recent Southern football game. Tauro is a volunteer assistant coach with the track and field team after graduating from Michigan this year.

Perhaps more importantly, though, the more recent student-athletes simply are motivated to continue the tradition.

“Just knowing that I’m in the same high school as them and I’m going through the same thing as them, it lets an athlete like myself know that anything’s possible,” said Southern junior Mike Gesicki, a three-sport star who has several major NCAA Division I football scholarship offers. “They walked down the same hallways as I’m walking down, and they put in the hard work that I’m going to put in, so hopefully I can be at the level that they’re at, too.”

Committed coaches

A big key to an athlete’s development is the presence of committed, respected coaches.

Kathy Snyder is in her 35th year as girls basketball coach and 29th as field hockey coach. Longtime track and field and cross country coach Brian Zatorski “could be one of the best college coaches in the nation” if he wanted to, Tauro said. John Stout and Eric Maxwell have built state powerhouses over the past decade in wrestling and volleyball, respectively.

But DeGraw-Cole said the most important thing she did as AD was hiring Chuck Donohue Sr. to coach the football team in 1998. Donohue, the current AD’s father, worked with the school’s other coaches and teams on their training, setting high expectations not only for football but for the entire athletic department.

“I knew in getting Chuck Donohue as our football coach, I knew he would do things with football,” DeGraw-Cole said. “I didn’t realize how broad Chuck’s effect would be.”

The result: Wilhelm, the principal, said on a recent Monday morning he got to school at 5:50 a.m. and there already were girls basketball, boys winter track and wrestling athletes working out.

It’s not just the coaches, either.

Athletic director Chuck Donohue Jr. is intensely committed. Most high school athletic departments don’t even have their own websites, but Southern’s is almost at the level of a college site. Donohue Jr. also is extremely active on Twitter, tweeting encouragement to all of his teams.

Molinaro, who won three state wrestling titles at Southern, said part of the reason why he transferred to the school after his freshman year at Middletown North — his family moved to its second home in Barnegat — was because of the school’s commitment to athletics.

“They really do a good job of getting kids ready going on to the next level because a lot of the coaches they have have that kind of experience and they understand what’s ahead of the athletes,” Molinaro said.

A positive attitude

It’s not just coaching, though. Truex and his older brother, Martin, didn’t even play school-sponsored sports. There’s also Kayla Ellis, a world-class sailor who graduated this past spring and sails for the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

Cornelius, the teacher whose kids watch her former students on TV, said the positive atmosphere at Southern encourages athletes to thrive.

“There’s no graffiti in our bathrooms,” biology teacher Ruth Tummey said. “The kids love this school. The hallways aren’t dirty. There’s no defacing. They’re not disrespectful. They’re proud of their school.”

Instead, the walls are covered with homemade posters for the various teams.

“For my psych class, that’s one thing I say: ‘If you were a stranger and you walked around the halls, what would you know about Southern?’” said teacher Tracy Paulillo. “And they’re like, ‘Well, we value athletics in a big way. There’s no doubt about that.’”

If Tauro had grown up a few towns over, she might have never started running track.

“I probably would have kept going with musical theater,” Tauro said.

But Zatorski discovered her in the school’s hallways and developed her into one of the nation’s top runners. Tauro now trains with the New Jersey-New York Track Club and has realistic goals of making the world championships and Olympics.

“I definitely thank God for going to Southern,” Tauro said.

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