Still playing the first weekend of December and looking for yet another NJSIAA sectional championship are both commonplace at Middletown South, long one of the Shore Conference’s superpowers, specifically as a public school in an era when non-publics tend to rule over many high school sports in New Jersey.
Advancing to this point has been one thing, but getting over the hump and hoisting a trophy has turned into quite another over the last decade for longtime head coach Steve Antonucci. Since the Eagles took home the Central Group III crown in 2006, the program’s fourth straight and first post-Knowshon Moreno, they have advanced to six sectional finals, including Saturday night’s North II Group IV title game against two-time defending champion Phillipsburg at 7 p.m. at MetLife Stadium.
Middletown South has come up on the wrong end of its last five trips to a title game, including last season’s 21-18 crusher to Jackson Memorial in the Central Group IV final.
Getting a sectional championship is a nice accomplishment, but it’s not enough at a place like Middletown South.
“Enough is enough as far as we’re concerned,” Antonucci said. “It’s nice to be there. I know a lot of guys in this business who have never had the chance, but when you get there, you want to finish the deal and with this group, I don’t know that there’s any other ending. It has to end that way and for us to be considered an elite football team in the history of the Shore Conference, this has to be a win for us.”
The Eagles (11-0) lost that CJ IV title game to the Jaguars last season after a fake field goal attempt failed with nine seconds left. That was the bad news. The good news was that Antonucci knew he would have a team capable of winning a sectional title coming back.
Behind a Cole Rogers-fueled rushing attack, a strong-armed, capable quarterback in Matt Mosquera and a versatile defense with veterans all over the field, Middletown South opened this season ranked No. 1 in the Asbury Park Press Top 10. It made an early statement by coming from behind for a 41-21 Week 1 win at South Brunswick, which is through to the Central Group V final with that Sept. 11 defeat as its only loss.
From there, the Eagles have rolled all comers, save for a grind-it-out 21-3 win over Central Group IV finalist Brick Memorial on Oct. 23.
This team has seemed destined to be playing Saturday night, a notion Antonucci has made no attempt to hide from.
“Our kids have been focused, and when you watch us play, you can see that,” Antonucci said. “We didn’t celebrate winning the semifinal or winning the division (both coming at the expense of Middletown North on Nov. 20 and Nov. 26, respectively). We have a goal and that goal won’t be reached until about 9 o’clock on Saturday night.”
The unfamiliarity with Phillipsburg, which is 30-5 with the two sectional championships since the beginning of the 2013 season, makes this matchup intriguing. Antonucci compared the Stateliners to Manalapan, which should be considered a compliment given the Braves have perennially been in the mix for division and state titles recently.
Aside from a third straight title, Phillipsburg is bidding for its eighth sectional championship and sixth in the last 10 years. Middletown South is bidding for its 10th overall as Antonucci will coach in a sectional title game for the 13th time in 18 seasons.
“I’ve been very blessed to be at this point in a season and be in the situations I’ve been in,” Antoinucci said. “I don’t take anything for granted, and I’m in this on Saturday to win. That’s what I want more than anything for these kids and this program. My legacy is what it is, but I just hope it’s remembered that we had a lot of success in my time here.”
Staff writer Josh Newman: email@example.com