In summer 2013, coach Jeff Reilly told an incoming freshman to start practicing at Ocean Acres Country Club if he wanted to join the Southern Regional High School team in the spring.
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The freshman, Matt Rizzo, had never golfed. Taking Reilly’s advice, he hit the green almost every day until the 2014 season began.
Rizzo went on to finish second in the Ocean County Tournament as a sophomore and won it as a junior.
Boosted by Rizzo’s strong performance — he was a first-team Press All-Star in 2016 — Reilly has never previously enjoyed a run like this one in his 18 years as coach of the Rams.
This spring, Southern will chase its fifth consecutive Shore Conference A-South title and fourth straight Ocean County Tournament team title.
“We’ve always had a successful program, but the last few years have been consistently a higher level of play,” Reilly said Thursday. “I’m extremely lucky to have good players that practice all year round, love the game and take pride in what we have accomplished in this program.”
Reilly credits the success to Rizzo, 17, and a strong trio of juniors — Nick Campanelli, Chris D’Alessandro, and Caleb Rossi.
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“The four of us definitely have a lot of pressure on us this spring,” said Rizzo, “but we are all dedicated to this team. The last few weeks of preseason will be enough for us. I have no doubt that we’ll be ready. I’m so confident in the juniors. They play well and are a great influence on the younger players on the team.”
Southern has traditionally fielded teams with a lot of depth. This season, there’s just one sophomore and one freshman, both newcomers to the varsity sport.
“The top four know it’s all on them this season, but these players eat, sleep, and breathe golf. They want to do everything they can to continue the success we’ve been able to have in the past few years,” Reilly said. “They know what it means to be a Southern golfer, and they want to model that and continue to build the program.”
The members of the golf team are known throughout the school’s hallways. Students and teachers keep up with the players, asking about their scores and praising their success.
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“It’s just not common for a large public high school to pay this much attention to golf,” Reilly said. “The people in the school genuinely care about our team in the same way it would typically be for a basketball or football team.
“The success has brought a level of popularity to golf at Southern, and that only inspires our players to do well and for new kids to join the team.”
Rizzo will graduate in May and move on to play for Drew University, but he isn’t done with his scholastic career yet.
“We want to take it all this season,” Rizzo said. “We want (the Shore Conference) A-South and the Ocean County Tournament again. We want to play well in the tough Shore Conference Tournament, perform well at the state sectionals and hopefully make a run at the Tournament of Champions.”
Southern’s regular season kicks off April 3 against Brick Memorial at Woodlake Country Club. The Rams will head next week to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to compete in the Palmetto Invitational.
“This is going to set the tone for the season. We come right back to start matches and tournaments,” Rizzo said. “This is the start.”