MANAHAWKIN – Southern Regional is renowned for its wrestling program that keeps churning out some of the top teams in the state on a yearly basis and this year’s team looks to fit the bill.

The Rams are off to another one of their signature winning seasons and are currently ranked fourth in the Shore Conference and 17th in the state with a 10-3 record and 4-2 in the rugged Class A South.

“It was a little bit slow actually in the beginning of the year but we’re starting to gain a little speed now,” said John Stout, who in his 18th year as head coach of the Rams and 24th overall as a coach in the program. “But I think we’ve got the ship pointing in the right direction at the moment.”

Under Stout’s tutelage, the Rams have won two NJSIAA group titles (with the most recent coming in 2016), 12 sectional titles (including last year and 11 of the last 14), five divisional titles and 20 district team titles (including 17 of the last 18).

Stout eats, sleeps and breathes wrestling and has done so since he was nine years old when he fell in love with the sport.

“I love competing and obviously you hit an age after college when you can’t wrestle anymore,” said Stout. “So, it was a way for me to stay in the sport and I think the benefits you get from it are incredible. I think it’s the best sport that a young man and, at this point obviously a young woman, can do. You learn a lot of life’s lessons in wrestling. I tell the kids all the time, ‘life’s a wrestling match.’ It gives you the confidence and the ability to compete in life.”

The Rams returned nine wrestlers out of the 14 weight classes, including 2018 regional champions Nick O’Connell and John Stout (son of the coach), and district champion Nick Pepe.

O’Connell won the regions at 152 last year and is 19-0 this season wrestling at 160 pounds. Stout won at 170 and in last season’s regions and is also 19-0 this season wrestling at 182 pounds. Senior Pepe took the district title wrestling at 145 and is 18-2 this season at that same weight.

“This team is very good as far as the amount of highly accomplished wrestlers we have on the team,” said Stout. “Between Nick Pepe, Nick O’Connell and my son John, just to name a few, we have a lot of really good wrestlers in this lineup. It’s a very seasoned team with a lot of experience and these guys aren’t fazed by big matches. We’re just trying to bring our younger guys along as fast as we can, but there’s nothing that beats experience. You need to have been there before to realize it’s not all that it’s made up to be, but you got to get there to feel the experience.”

Stout uses Pepe, O’Connell and his son John as examples of leadership not only on the mats but in the classroom.

“They’re the three guys that everybody kind of looks to as the example of really what the wrestler at Southern Regional is right now,” said Stout. “These guys are all very, very strong students – straight-A students in honor courses and things like that. Nick Pepe is committed to Stevens Institute of Technology; my son to the University of Pennsylvania and Nick O’Connell is going to seminary school for a year then hopefully Princeton or U. Penn. They work hard and they don’t cut corners. They’re gentlemen on and off the mat, so they’re just beaming examples of what kids look up to and aspire to be.”

Other key contributors include Jason Scerbo (12-7) at 113 pounds, Matt Brielmeier (13-7) at 120 pounds, Sebastian Delligatti (12-3) at 126 pounds, Robert Woodcock (12-2) at 138 pounds, Haven Tatarek (12-5) at 170 pounds, Ben Loparo (14-4) at 195 pounds, JT Cornelius (18-0) at 220 pounds and Jayden Smith (8-4) at heavyweight.

The fact that Stout has been able to sustain a winning program for as long as he has is not only a credit to him, but to the program in its entirety.

“There’s a lot of people involved, you go all the way down to the rec level and that’s really where it starts,” said Stout. “We’ve established a very good relationship with the rec guys. Bob Smith (Smitty) has been involved with Southern wrestling for over 30 years now. He started the rec program with Rich Ferguson and Jim Sutter many, many years ago. We all work together and help each other out and our guys will go down and work with the rec kids.

“It goes from the rec level to the middle school, where the head coach wrestled for Southern in the early 2000’s, to the high school, where my assistant coaches are Danny Hall who was one of my first guys I coached at Southern, and Luke Lanno who also wrestled for me. So, it’s just a big well-oiled machine that’s working well together right now, and you have the parents that allow you to do the things you need to do to be successful.”

Stout also praised his long-time assistant coach Dan Roy, who has been coaching at Southern for 13 years and according to Stout, “Dan has really been an intricate part of Southern’s success over the past 13 years.”

Last season, the Rams were beaten by Howell in the NJSIAA Group V final and the defending champion Rebels look to be the team to beat again this year as the No. 1 team in the Shore and third-ranked team in the state.

“In the big picture you put that on the calendar for sure,” said Stout about getting a chance at revenge. “But you can’t just prepare for one team though, because you never know what is going to happen. You can’t just worry about the Howells of the world; you’ve got to get there first. Howell is obviously the team to beat right now on paper and at the end of the calendar, but we got a lot of work to take care of in order just to get there.”

This past weekend the Rams traveled to Council Rock High School South for the 2019 Escape the Rock Tournament in Southampton, PA that featured 52 of the top wrestling teams and individuals in the country, including four teams ranked in the nation’s top 20 in 2018 and 13 National Champions.