Middletown South head coach Steve Antonucci knew his team had a lot of fight in it, and they needed every ounce of that tenacity Saturday evening.
But in the end, the Eagles didn’t have quite enough in the tank to overcome early mistakes and fell short of ousting No. 1 seed Sayreville, 35-28, in the Central Jersey Group IV Championship at Rutgers’ High Point Solutions Stadium.
“We played until the bitter end,” Antonucci said. “The bottom line is you can’t give away points to a team like that and we did.”
After two first-half interceptions, both by Mailk Pressley, led to a pair of Sayreville touchdowns, the Eagles found themselves facing a 28-14 halftime deficit. But after playing even with the Bombers during the second half, the Eagles still needed two touchdowns and at least a pair of extra points with 3:58 to go to tie the contest — and staring at 99 yards of field to the opposite end zone.
But led by junior quarterback Kyle Brey, the Eagles strung together a 10-play drive that took up just over a minute and a half to pull within seven points and gave Middletown South a chance to tie.
Brey completed three passes and rushed for 12 yards and a crucial first down to put the Eagles on the Sayreville 45 with 2:38 left. On the next play, Brey scrambled to his right, fired a deep pass on the run and found senior receiver Anthony Citarella just behind two defensive backs for a 45-yard touchdown. Junior kicker Connor Ryan kicked the extra point to make it a 7-point game with 2:25 left.
With Antonucci having already made the decision to go for a two-point conversion if the Eagles scored again, Middletown South set up for the onsides kick. But the Bombers recovered the short bouncer and then ran the clock down to secure their third straight sectional crown.
“I think our quarterback grew up a lot as the year went on,” Antonucci said. “I believed in these kids.”
The Bombers (12-0) got off to a fast start, scoring their first TD on just two plays, when Myles Hartsfield ran the ball into the end zone from 15 yards out to give Sayreville the early lead. An Isaiah Cureton point-after kick made it 7-0 with 10:14 to go in the first.
The Eagles (8-4) answered to tie the game, 7-7, when Brey hit junior tight end Tayler Hendrickson on a 24-yard pass play and Ryan followed with a PAT with 6:43 left in the first. But Sayreville quickly turned the momentum back in its favor, when Cureton kept the ball, ran around the left end and zipped down the sideline for a 61-yard TD run just 17 seconds later. His follow-up PAT made it 14-0.
On Sayreville’s next possession and the Bombers facing fourth-and-3, Cureton found Robert Geiger all alone in the end zone for a 17-yard pass with 36 seconds left in the first. Cureton’s third PAT made it 21-7.
“He’s (Cureton) tough and a damn good player,” Antonucci said. “It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out who the best player on the field was today. They do what they do and do it well.”
The Eagles hurt themselves on their next possession, working the ball down to the Sayreville 1 before committing a false start on third-and-goal. On the next play, Brey was picked off by Pressley, who then returned the interception 98 yards for a TD. Cureton’s fourth PAT made it 28-7 with 4:36 to go in the half.
Middletown South struck back just before the half ended, utilizing a 60-yard strike from Brey to junior receiver Andrew Wisialko to put the ball on the Sayreville 2, and then scoring on a 1-yard burst by senior running back Eli Smith. Ryan’s PAT made it 28-14 with 1:34 left in the half.
Citarella put the Eagles within 7 early in the second half when he picked off a Cureton pass and took it to the house on a 38-yard return. Ryan’s third PAT made it 28-21 just over a minute through the third.
However, later in the third the Bombers, facing fourth-and-2 from the Middletown South 4-yard line, punched the ball into the end zone on a 4-yard run by Cureton, who finished with 175 yards rushing and 57 more passing, following a timeout. His extra point with 3:08 left in the third made it 35-21.
Brey finished with 223 yards passing while completing 13 of 31 passes. Sayreville’s Zeke Perkinson carried the ball 20 times for 107 yards.
“I was concerned a little bit coming in with a younger team, and we had to calm down a little before we got going,” Antonucci said. “This sucks, I’ve got to be honest. But I feel we can be back here again next year.”