MIDDLETOWN – With the score 10-7 in Middletown South’s favor late in the fourth quarter and Manasquan driving into Eagles territory, junior cornerback Matt Cruz intercepted a pass from Warriors quarterback Tommy Antonucci that deflected off the hands of junior wide receiver James Pendergist with 49.3 seconds left in the game.
That ended a Manasquan last-ditch drive that had started at their own two-yard line and advanced to the Middletown South 48 before Cruz sealed the game for the Eagles and handed them an important Class B North victory over the Warriors Friday night at Middletown South’s “The Swamp.”
It also ended an emotional family affair that pitted Manasquan’s starting quarterback Tommy Antonucci against his father; long-time Middletown South head coach Steve Antonucci.
“It’s a 100 percent relief that it’s over,” the younger Antonucci said about having to face his father for the second year in a row. “I am so excited that I don’t ever have to do that again.”
“Now I can go back to being dad and get back to the normal routine,” the coach said. “It’s not something you look forward to spending your whole week game planning to stop your son. Trying to pressure him into mistakes is not easy by any means. All and all it may be fun to watch but it’s really not fun to be a part of.”
On the opening possession of the game South drove to the Warriors’ 33-yard line before two incomplete passes forced a punt. Then on Manasquan’s ensuing possession the Warriors drove to the South’s 29-yard line but on second-and-10 Antonucci coughed up the ball after being hit behind the line of scrimmage by junior outside linebacker Matt Tardy. South’s sophomore defensive tackle Vincent Condito recovered for the Eagles at the 37.
Neither team did much of anything offensively in the first half after their initial drives. Both defenses kept the other’s offense stuck in their own territory the rest of half.
Manasquan finished with 93 first-half yards while South ended the half with just 65 total yards. Senior running back Connor Morgan carried 10 times for 35 yards for the Warriors and junior wide receiver James Pendergist was on the receiving end of an Antonucci 33-yard pass. South senior running back Chaz Alessi picked up 27 yards on the ground on nine carries and senior quarterback Ben Kinsella completed 5-of-13 passes for 33 yards.
A block in the back penalty on the second half kickoff pinned Manasquan back at their own six-yard line before Condito and junior outside linebacker Matt Tardy each recorded three-yard tackles for a loss putting the ball at the goal line and forcing Antonucci to punt from his own end zone.
Junior James Petrillo fielded Antonucci’s punt at the 35 and returned it to the Manasquan 22-yard line handing the Eagles their best field position of the game.
Two runs by Alessi gave the Eagles a first down at the 14-yard line but a fumbled snap by Kinsella lost nine yards and after a four-yard run by Kinsella and an incomplete pass they were looking at a fourth-and-15 from the 16-yard line. Eagles Chris Kaldrovics then split the uprights with a 33-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead with 7:05 left in the third quarter.
Kaldrovics ensuing kickoff went out of bounds so the Warriors took over on their own 35 now trailing, 3-0.
On first down Morgan was stopped after a two-yard gain by senior outside linebacker Jake Krelin, who then stopped Morgan for no gain on third-and-4 from the 41 forcing Manasquan to punt.
Krelin had a monster game finishing with 15 tackles including three tackles for a loss even as Manasquan appeared to run away from his side.
“I felt the first couple of weeks they were running away from me,” Krelin said of his frustration with teams avoiding his side. “We get Tardy back and he’s going to make a presence on the other side. They got to come to my side sooner or later and when they do, I’m going to make that play.”
Even with teams running away from him, Krelin just chases the runner down from the backside – he’s that good.
Following the Manasquan punt the Eagles took over on their own 35-yard line. Kinsella found Petrillo on a swing pass in the right flats for 10 yards and a first down and Alessi picked up five more on the ground moving the ball to the 50 for a second-and-five.
Kinsella then faked a handoff to Alessi on a zone-read keeper that had the entire Manasquan defense biting on the fake and took it all the way around left end 50 yards for the touchdown and a 10-0 lead after Kaldrovics’ extra point with 4:17 remaining in the half.
“Everything’s new to him,” said Antonucci of the Eagles first-year starter. “It’s only game three for this kid. We implemented some option stuff which we haven’t done in a few years. This is a kid going under center for the first time. And all this stuff is new to him. We’ll take what we can get from him. He’ll get better, too. From an athletic standpoint, he has a ton of potential.”
Kinsella ran the ball nine times for 66 yards and a touchdown and completed 8-of-17 attempts for an additional 72 yards.
Pendergist then returned the South’s ensuing kickoff 40 yards to the 50-yard line giving the Warriors excellent field position with 4:07 left in the third.
A trick play on third-and-12 from the 48 that had Antonucci handing off to Morgan, who then pitched the ball to John Foreman, who then lofted a 35-yard strike to Pendergist gave the Warriors a first down at the Eagles 17-yard line. However, two plays later Morgan fumbled after being hit hard by junior defensive back Matt Cruz with junior defensive end Jack Hardzewicz recovering at the 18 for the Eagles.
Manasquan got on the board three plays later when senior defensive tackle Evan Hilla put a vicious hit on Alessi causing him to fumble with the ball bouncing right into the hands of Antonucci, who scampered into the end zone untouched pulling the Warriors to within 10-7 with 50 seconds left in the third quarter.
South picked up a first down following the kick but a fumbled snap and two runs that netted two yards and a punt.
Sophomore Tyler Cuccia punt was aided by a good bounce all the way to the 15-yard line putting the Warriors in a hole with 10:28 left in the game.
The South defense then went to work. Krelin stopped Morgan for no gain on first down; Tardy tackled Antonucci for a one-yard loss and on third-and-11 from the 14 Krelin deflected Antonucci’s pass and it fell incomplete.
“It was time for him to start taking over games,” Antonucci said of his linebacker’s dynamic play Friday night. “He’s such a huge part of what we do defensively and tonight he was able to flex his muscles a little bit.”
Following the Warriors punt, Hilla, who had 10 tackles including two TFL, stopped Kinsella for a loss and on third-and-10 he hit Kinsella as he was releasing the ball and it fell incomplete forcing an Eagle punt and one last shot at tying or winning the game with 5:22 remaining.
Pendergist allowed the punt to get past him all the way back to the two-yard line and Manasquan was looking at 98 yards of turf in front of them.
Antonucci scrambled for a first down on third-and-10 from the two getting out of the grasp of Tardy in the end zone for what looked like a safety and Morgan picked up two yards and a first down on third-and-2 at the 28.
Another Antonucci first down run gave the Warriors a first down at the 40 with under two minutes to play. A reverse to Pendergist was snuffed out by Krellin and Tardy stopped Antonucci for a three-yard gain but on third-and-6 Antonucci found Pendergist for seven yards and a first down at the Eagles 48 with a minute to play.
Antonucci then looked for Pendergist one more time and had him open but the ball deflected off his hands and Cruz made a diving interception to put a cap on the game for the Eagles.
“We knew going in we had to stop the run. Obviously, that’s what they do very well,” Antonucci said of Middletown South’s game plan. “We stacked the box a little and tried to put pressure on them. We were able to do that. To have Tardy and Krellin, you saw what they can do. They can wreak havoc on people.”
South held the potent Manasquan rushing attack to 94 yards on 38 carries for a 2.6 yards per carry average for the game.
“We’re getting better,” said Antonucci of his young Eagles squad. “We’re starting to get to the point where we’re playing the kind of football we’re capable of playing. We’re still young and are going to make mistakes. But, as far as from week to week , I see progress and that’s a positive thing for us.”
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