By Mike Ready
MIDDLETOWN TOWNSHIP – While most Shore Conference Thanksgiving Day rivalry games have gone by the wayside in recent years, the Middletown North – Middletown South Thanksgiving Day game still remains one of the township’s most popular events which attracts what seems like the entire community year after year.
There are currently five Shore Conference Thanksgiving games still active, but following Thursday’s games the number dwindles to four with Toms River South and Lakewood – the longest running rivalry game in the Shore and one of the longest in the state – playing for the 100th and final time on Thanksgiving. 
It wasn’t long ago that Thanksgiving Day without high school football would’ve sounded like a preposterous idea, but here we are today being able to count the number of holdovers on one hand. 
With the NJSIAA expanding the state playoff system with the intent of eventually crowning outright group champions, having games played on Thanksgiving has made it impracticable with the scheduling of state playoff games taking precedence.
However, the show will go on in Middletown, as it has every year for the last 44 years, on Thanksgiving Day.
“It’s such a big game in this town with bragging rights on the line,” said Middletown North head coach Steve Buch. “So many people in the town come out for the game. It’s Senior Day and it’s a spectacle with the cheerleaders and the band and everything else. It’s a festive day and it’s always nice to come up with a victory.” 
Middletown South holds a 31-12-1 edge in the series and at one point held a 16-game winning streak until Middletown North snapped the steak three years ago. The Eagles have won the last two, including a 10-7 win in last season’s game, which easily could’ve gone either way. 
This year’s edition of the game will be played at “The Swamp” at Middletown South on Thursday, Nov. 28 with kickoff scheduled for 10:30 am, and  you better get there early as seats will come at a premium and the fence around the field will be lined four-deep with spectators vying for position. 
“There’s really not much of a home field advantage in this game,” said Bush. “It’s a cross-town rivalry and there’s so many people there from both sides, so it’s more a matter of stepping up and making some plays that really counts.” 
The Lions, who lost their best player, running back/strong safety Anthony Soto, in the second game of the season, enter with a deceiving 4-6 record having played much better than their record indicates. They were in every game until the end excluding their loss to Mater Dei Prep – ranked No. 3 in the Shore. The average point differential in those five losses was 8.6 points. 
“We just got to find a way to win the close ones,” said Bush. “We kind of stopped ourselves at times and we got learn to finish off games; we’re a young team.” 
First-year starting quarterback Nick Ferriera, who will be behind center for his final game as a senior, has completed 88-of-162 passes for 999 yards and seven touchdowns with six interceptions. 
His two main targets are senior Matt Spencer (27-460-5) and junior Quentin Soler (30-334-2).
Sophomore Brian Haddow stepped in for Soto at running back and has had a breakout season rushing for 568 yards and five touchdowns on 113 carries for a 5-yard per carry average. He is also one of the top contributors on defense at safety recording 62 tackles, recovering a fumble and leading the team with seven defended passes. 
Senior Eddy Farrel is one of the leading tacklers in the Shore and leads the team with 113 tackles averaging 12.6 tackles a game with 11 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.
“Eddie plays with a lot of heart and desire and plays with a lot of intensity,” said Bush. “He’s a tough kid with good quickness and he’s smart and knows what we’re doing.” 
Senior linebacker Travis Thompson is second on the team with six tackles for loss along with 65 tackles, sack, forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. 
Defensive end Jacinto Lopez has had a stellar freshman campaign leading the team with 6.5 sacks along with 30 tackles and an additional two tackles for loss. 
Junior linebacker Jake Jankowski is second in tackles with 84 along with five tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. 
Junior safety Jonathan Miranda, junior linebacker Joe King and junior defensive end/offensive tackle Nick Cerbo have all stepped up big for the Lions. 
Middletown South (4-5) is a member of the toughest division in the Shore (American Division), if not the state, and like the Lions, are better than their record. 
South will be looking to rebound after suffering a tough loss in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV semifinal against top-seeded Hammonton in a game which they had a 21-14 lead in the third quarter before falling, 32-29. 
The Eagles are led by senior quarterback/defensive back Tyler Cuccia, senior running  back/defensive tackle Vinny Condito, senior running back/safety Chris Lotito, senior defensive/offensive lineman Nick Bonfliglio, junior defensive/offensive lineman Joe Stanzione, senior safety Matt Krellin, senior linebacker/center, long snapper T.J. Latore, sophomore wideout Thomas Schork, junior linebacker Mark Tardy, junior cornerback Luke Albrecht and offensive/defensive linemen Tom Mielnikiewicz and Ian Rahill. 
It should be a close game despite the Eagles holding a significant edge in veteran players. But whenever these two neighboring schools take the field on Thanksgiving, they are well aware that the town’s bragging rights are on the line and neither wants to be on the short end of it. 
“We felt like we could’ve gotten that one last year,” said Bush. “Middletown South is always a tough team and a well-coached team and it’s always a battle and this year will be no different.”