By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
RICHLAND — When Matt Kouser nailed a 3-pointer for St. Augustine Prep’s first basket Wednesday night against visiting Ocean City it looked as though the Hermits would breeze to their ninth victory of the season — and the historic 1,000th of legendary coach Paul Rodio’s career.
But Ocean City is coached by a guy named John Bruno, owner of 450 career wins, and his team wasn’t about to just give in and hand the Hermits their milestone victory in front of a packed house of Navy blue-clad fans in the appropriately named Paul Rodio Gymnasium. The Red Raiders scrapped and clawed and stayed in it until the final minute, trailing by just four points with 55 seconds to go, before the Hermits sealed a 50-41 win at the free-throw line.
After some baited breath in the final moments, the celebration could begin, and it did so with gusto as St. Augustine Prep rolled out a five minute career highlight video on a huge screen behind one of the baskets. The place went dark, Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” started playing and Rodio stood at center court, watching some of the best moments of his high school coaching career pan by.
“I’m just overwhelmed more with how long I’ve been doing this and how many different people here that I’ve affected, which is just as important — if not more important — than the 1,000 wins,” Rodio said. “I’m happy to be able to do it here with all the former players here. I don’t think anybody will ever get (1,000) wins again. Nobody coaches long enough to do it. I never thought I’d be here this long.”
Rodio is in his 46th season coaching basketball at St. Augustine Prep and the lists he joined by reaching 1,000 wins are very short. He becomes just the second coach in New Jersey history to reach the milestone, joining Bobby Hurley Sr. of St. Anthony (1,1185-125 in 45 seasons), and Rodio is one of just 21 coaches nationwide to have garnered 1,000 wins.
“This is awesome,” said junior forward Matt Kouser, who’s father, Michael, played under Rodio and graduated in 1997. “My dad was here for his 400th and 500th wins and what coach Rodio has built throughout the past 40 or 50 years here is just awesome.”
“It’s amazing. When I came here my freshman year I looked up to coach Rodio and I always wanted to help him achieve 1,000 wins,” said Ethan Fox, a senior guard and Glassboro resident. “Tonight made it so special because I really look up to coach Rodio. I’m really proud of him and everything he’s done for this program.”
St. Augustine Prep (9-1, 5-0 Cape-Atlantic League National) jumped out to what seemed like a comfortable lead early on, but Ocean City (4-7, 3-4 CAL National) closed the gap to just 16-13 at the end of the first quarter and trailed just 28-26 at halftime after a nifty pass from Pat Grimely to Ben McGonigle. Then, the third quarter, Ocean City got a huge 3-pointer from Sean Sakers to cut the deficit to 36-35. The Red Raiders took a brief 37-36 lead when Dylan Schlatter found Grimley cutting to the basket late in the third quarter, prompting Rodio to call a timeout.
“We have so much to work on. We have big games coming up and we need to take big steps to reach our goal, which is obviously to win a South Jersey championship then a state championship,” Kouser said. “We have a lot to work on, but I think we’ll get there. Coach Rodio was good about trying to keep us loose before the game and make it not really about him, even though it was about him. He helped relieve the pressure.”
“The guys were hungry for this. We wanted to win nine games straight (to get Rodio to 1,000 wins) but we had that loss (on Jan. 3 vs. Camden Eastside). We didn’t think of that as a setback, though, we just kept pushing to get wins,” Fox added. “We were nervous, but our guys persevered. We got together during one of the timeouts and we just talked it out. We said we had to win this for coach, and we just put our foot on the gas and got the win.”
Ife Okebiorun scored on a putback with 1:26 left in the third to put St. Augustine up, 38-37, and the Hermits never trailed again. Ocean City got to within 45-41 with two minutes to go when Omero Chevere scored in transition, but Kouser and point guard Semaji Bethea hit some key free throws in the final 90 seconds to secure the win. Kouser finished with 18 points — including four 3-pointers — to go along with 11 rebounds, and Elijah Brown had 10 points, four rebound and seven assists. Okebiorun added eight points and nine rebounds for the Hermits, while Chevere led Ocean City with 14 points.
The star of the night, by far, though, was coach Rodio, who had a serious health scare prior to last season that almost forced him out of coaching.
“I’m just really proud of him, to see him back on the court and healthy, you’re seeing vintage Rodio,” Fox said. “Last year we didn’t get much of his coaching because he was sick, but this year we have him and it feels like it’s old school. I’m loving it. This is really fun.”
“The doctor is here who saved my life. He’s in the stands tonight,” Rodio said. “There are so many people here who have affected me. My best friends, students who don’t play basketball who I’m close to, and all the guys who played for me who I’m really close to. I’m happy to have done it here.”
Rodio was asked to try to put into perspective what reaching this kind of milestone means, and in classic coach Rodio fashion he responded with some of his signature humor.
“This is the first time I hit 1,000 wins, so I don’t know how long it’s going to sink in,” he quipped. “I’ll know how to approach it the next time I hit 1,000.”
What’s Next: St. Augustine Prep hosts St. Joseph Academy on Friday at 6 p.m. Ocean City hosts Wildwood on Saturday at 7 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays