It had been an unusual playoff run for Middletown South.
Most times, the Eagles have entered the playoffs as favorites to win an NJSIAA sectional championship. In current Denver Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno’s last three seasons from 2003 through 2005, Middletown South was a heavy favorite to win sectional championships.
The Eagles did so in dominant fashion as part of the Shore Conference-record 43-game winning streak they put together from the beginning of the 2003 season through the seventh game of the 2006 season.
However, nobody was sure what to expect from Middletown South when it began this year’s playoffs. The Eagles had been drubbed, by Colts Neck in their final game before the playoffs. Coach Steve Antonucci admitted to being embarrassed by his team’s performance in that game.
But, here Middletown South was on late Saturday afternoon, at Rutgers University’s High Point Solutions Stadium in a sectional championship for the 10th time in the last 12 seasons, the 11th time in Antonucci’s 15 seasons and 19th time overall.
The Eagles’ playoff run, which saw them continue their dominance over Mercer County teams with a 40-8 win over No. 2 seed West Windsor-Plainsboro South and then exact revenge on Colts Neck with an overwhelming offensive performance in a 45-35 win, seemed to put an extra bounce in the always energetic Antonucci’s voice this week as his team was preparing to play powerful and unbeaten Sayreville in the NJSIAA Central Group IV Championship.
“This would be a game — if we could pull this off somehow, someway — it would be one of my finer moments in coaching,” said Antonucci last Tuesday.
Middletown South could not pull it off. Sayreville had a little too much athleticisim, a little too much of quarterback Isaiah Cureton and maybe a little bit too much experience as it recorded a 35-28 win and won its third straight Central IV title.
But, in defeat, Middletown South showed the qualities that have made it a top flight program for 25 years. It did not give in when it was down 28-7 late in the first half after a killer 98-yard interception return for a TD by Malik Pressley. Nor did it given in when it was down 35-21 with less than four minutes left.
“We shown a lot of character all year long,” said Antonucci, who has coached Middletown South to five sectional championships. “I realy believed in these kids. I thought, even if we had enough time and hadn’t used all our timeouts, if we had gotten the ball back, we were already planning for a two-point play (a game-winning two-point conversion).”
There’s are several reasons Middletown South has been on the top for so long. One, is very good talent. The other is coaching. Middletown South had great talent during the Moreno Era. It has had good, not great talent since, but is still always in contention.
In Sayreville, Middletown South faced a team, that well, reminded one, including Middletown South’s head coach, of Middletown South’s dominant teams.
“They play with arrogance, but not the kind of arrogance where you look at film and go they’re a punk team,” Antonucci said. “They’re confident in what they do and they’re coached well. It’s kind of like a bring at us attitude in a positive way. They do what they do and do it very well.”
Middletown South (8-4) responded to almost everything Sayreville (12-0) threw at it. Its response to Pressley’s interception return was a 60-yard strike from junior quarterback Kyle Brey to junior wide receiver Andrew Wisalko that led to a Smith 1-yard TD run.
The Eagles’ response late, after its defense held Sayreville on downs at the 1, was a Brey-led, 99-yard, 10-play drive that culminated with a Brey to Anthony Citarella 45-yard TD pass on a beautiful throw by Brey.
Brey, who threw for 223 yards and two TDs a week after he threw for 302 and four TDs against Colts Neck, gives Middletown South a huge reason to believe it has a legitimate chance to be playing for a sectional championship next season.
“He (Brey) really grew up a lot as the year went along and has a lot of fight in him,” Antonucci said.
Talented freshman and sophomore classes also give the Eagles’ coaching staff reason to believe they have a chance to return to their dominant ways. Two freshmen started at linebacker the last several weeks of the season.
“I’m hoping this is a stepping stone or a transition year, where hopefully we can get ourselves on a nice run,” Antonucci said. “We have some kids we’re excited about. You’re hanging your hat right now on some freshmen and sophomores, but if they pan to what we think they are, we’re going to be back.”
As exhilarating as this playoff run was for Antonucci, his coaching staff and the Middletown South players, there are no such thing as moral victories within the Middletown South program.
“I’ve had a chip on my shoulders for a few years now,” said Antonucci, whose program has not won a sectional title since 2006 and has been defeated in four sectional title games in the last five years. “We’ve got to win one. We’re on the outside looking in right now. We have to get in there. This is my 11th state championship game and we’re now under .500. I may be staying around until I get to at least .500.”