EAST RUTHERFORD – Some roads to a state championship can be bumpy, with losses and injuries to overcome, while others can be smooth and without obstacles.
As it turns out, Middletown South took a ride on the Autobahn for the last three months.
Saturday night’s 35-7 win over Phillipsburg in the NJSIAA North II Group IV championship game at MetLife Stadium represented the culmination of a dominant season from start to finish. The Eagles fell to Jackson Memorial in last season’s Central Group IV championship game, 21-18, when a fake field goal failed with nine seconds to go.
Out of the disappointment of that loss came the fact that longtime head coach Steve Antonucci was returning a large chunk of his core and expected to be back playing during the first weekend of December again. His team began the season ranked No. 1 in the Asbury Park Press Top 10, embraced the bullseye that comes along with it, proceeded to dominate and will finish the season still ranked No. 1.
“Oh yeah, we killed everybody,” Eagles senior middle linebacker Dylan Rogers said, half-jokingly. “We dominated from the start. We always knew we were gonna win. We didn’t want to underestimate anybody, but we knew were better than a lot of people.”
“This is what we strive for, we worked so hard for this,” senior running back Cole Rogers, Dylan’s twin brother said. “I really think we deserve this. I don’t know what I would do if we lost this.”
Saturday night was merely the latest example of such dominance as Middletown South held the Stateliners, perennial North Jersey contenders and winners of the last two North II Group IV titles, to just a fourth-quarter touchdown after they spent the first 10 games of the season blowing out the Mid-State 38’s Delaware Division.
Middletown South did much of the same to Shore Conference Class A North this fall, then continued into the state playoffs with wins over West Windsor North and crosstown rival Middletown North. The Eagles opened the season by falling behind at South Brunswick, 21-3, but charged back for a 41-21 win. As a point of reference, the Vikings finished the season 11-1 with an emphatic 42-0 win over Old Bridge earlier Saturday in the Central Group V championship game.
Beyond South Brunswick and a 21-3 win at Brick Memorial on Oct. 23, Middletown South handled all comers, registering four shutouts and holding seven of its 12 opponents to seven points or less.
Middletown South imposed its will on the bulk of its opponents early in games and Saturday night was no different. Junior Jeff Lewandowski took the opening kickoff 79 yards down the right sideline to the Phillipsburg 9-yard line. Two plays later, Cole Rogers got to the left pylon from two yards out to open the scoring before Matt Mosquera’s extra point made it 7-0.
“In the previous years we’ve been here, we’ve fallen behind, but we got off to a good start tonight,” Antonucci said. “That was what we needed, we talked about it all week. Let’s get momentum early and do what we need to do to get back out of here.”
The Eagles even overcame two first-quarter fumbles, one on a brutal missed call when Tom Coffey appeared to cough the ball up after hitting the turf, as their defense held steady. In the first half, Phillipsburg had just 39 yards of total offense and three first downs. After the ball security was cleaned up, Mosquera made arguably the second-biggest play of the game after Lewandowski’s kickoff return, connecting with Jeremy Joyce on fourth-and-7 for a jump-ball 28-yard touchdown pass and a 14-0 lead.
This is one of Antonucci’s greatest teams, emphasis on the word team. He has said as much publicly over the course of this playoff run. This 12-0 squad was not Knowshon Moreno running over everyone, it was not Nick Macaluso wreaking havoc as a linebacker. This was merely a veteran group of players that experienced heartache at this time last year coming back to right that wrong.
“This isn’t just a one-man team,” Antonucci said Saturday night while drenched in Gatorade.
If someone wanted to label Rogers as the ‘star,’ there would not be a full-blown argument, but Mosquera made enough plays at quarterback to warrant a nod, while he had quality receivers like Samson Dube, Spencer Pereless and Tom Marron to throw to. On the other side, a fearsome linebacker corps led by James McCarthy made sure offenses rarely, if ever found a comfort zone. Those 21 points the Eagles gave up to South Brunswick on Sept. 11 turned out to be the most they gave up this season.
Sometimes the run to immortality can be rough, and sometimes it can be smooth sailing. Whether or not the latter was true for Middletown South, the Eagles certainly made it look that way.
Staff writer Josh Newman: email@example.com