TOMS RIVER - Coach Chuck Donohue told his players something Friday night that no Southern Regional High School football team had heard in 39 years.
"You're champions," he said.
T.J. Bellissimo ran for six touchdowns as the Rams beat Toms River North 41-20 to clinch a share of the Shore Conference A South title. It's Southern's first conference football championship since 1972.
"This is a great thing," Bellissimo said. "It feels so good. It's so overwhelming. It's good to put (1972) to rest."
Bellissimo's six touchdowns broke the school record of five set by Muhammad Abdullah in 1996 and equaled by Brad Gessler in 2007. Bellissimo rushed 31 times for 175 yards.
"It wasn't me by myself," he said. "My offensive line blocked amazing. In the beginning of the year, people were saying the offensive line was too small, but (Friday) showed we play with heart. The offensive line brings it every single play."
Toms River North (4-2) has been a big reason why the Rams hadn't won a division title in 39 years. Southern beat North in the 2008 playoffs but hadn't beat the Mariners in the regular season since 2005.
Southern (5-1), No. 10 in The Press Elite 11, controlled Friday's game. The Rams never trailed. Southern's first-string offense scored on six of its seven possessions.
Rams quarterback Dan Higgins didn't throw it often (7-of-9 for 122 yards), but his completions sustained scoring drives. Three of his completions came on fourth downs, and one on third down.
Southern standout sophomore receiver Mike Gesicki set up two touchdowns with a pair of remarkable receptions.
Defense lineman Matt Kelly helped the Southern defense slow North's speedy offense with two sacks and an interception by defensive back Joe Fiorelli led to another Rams touchdown.
That gave the Southern fans plenty cheer about it. The Rams crowd packed the visiting bleachers on a comfortable - and once the game started - dry night. Southern fans appeared to outnumber the North crowd. Anticipation for the game was high.
"We had to win," Donohue said. "We had no choice. Everybody would have said, 'Same ol' Southern' or whatever (if the Rams lost)."
The game turned in Southern's favor in the final two minutes of the first half.
Bellissimo finished a six-play, 80-yard drive with a 15-yard touchdown run up the middle to give the Rams a 14-6 lead with 1 minutes, 21 seconds left in the second quarter.
Gesicki set the touchdown up with a 41-yard catch. He caught a pass near the sideline and cut back across the field to give the Rams the ball at the North 22-yard line.
North then fumbled on the kickoff return after the score. Southern's Jesse Bauta recovered the fumble at the North 29.
Two plays later, Higgins lofted a pass toward the goal line. The 6-foot-5 Gesicki leaped and came down with the ball at the North 4-yard line.
"Coaches tell me all the time just to throw the ball up to him," Higgins said, "and let him make a play."
Bellissimo snuck across the goal line on the play after the catch to make it 21-6. Southern with 11 seconds left in the first half.
The Southern football team has had its share of naysayers throughout the years.
The skeptics are finding less and less about which to criticize the Rams.
Southern has made seven playoff appearances.
The Rams reached the South Jersey Group IV final in 2008, losing to Mainland Regional.
And now Southern has its elusive Shore Conference title. The Rams can win the A South championship outright with a victory over Toms River East at home next Friday.
"We're not done yet," Higgins said. "We want the title all for ourselves."
But the Rams have more than a conference title to play for. Friday's win establishes them as a South Jersey Group IV contender.
The Rams admit they sometimes get tired of hearing about what the program has never accomplished.
But the past is hard to ignore.
Southern wants to be one of the top four seeds in playoffs, so it gets a home postseason game this season.
"We've never had a home playoff game," Donohue said.
The coach then laughed.
"Here we go saying 'never' again," he said with a smile.
Contact Michael McGarry:
Southern Regional 7 14 13 7-41
Toms River North 0 6 7 7-20
SR-Bellissimo 1 run (Yaiser kick)
TRN-Gulla 41 field goal
TRN-Gulla 37 field goal
SR-Bellissimo 15 run (Yaiser kick)
SR-Bellissimo 4 run (Yaiser kick)
SR-Bellissimo 2 run (Yaiser kick)
TRN-Buxbaum 1 run (Gulla kick)
SR-Bellissimo 20 run (kick missed)
SR-Bellissimo 1 run (Yaiser kick)
TRN-Buxbaum 7 run (Gulla kick)
Rushing-Southern, Bellissimo 31-175; TRN, Buxbaum 16-73.
Passing-Southern,Higgins 7-9-0-122; TRN,Buxbaum 3-10-1-67
Receiving-Southern,Gesicki 2-62; TRN,Carrington 1-47.
Records-Southern 5-1; Toms River North 4-2