Middletown South, NJSIAA, high school football
(Photo by Andrew Mills, NJ Advanced Media) Head coach Steve Antonucci gets Gatorade bath after picking up 200th win.

Playoff Football Is The Cornerstone Of Middletown South's Fabric

MIDDLETOWN – The Middletown South football program has made 31 appearances in the NJSIAA playoffs since its inception in 1976 and holds a 49-21 playoff record during that time – good for a .700 winning percentage.

Of those 31 playoff appearances, the Eagles have reached the finals a remarkable 21 times and have won state sectional championships in 10 of them.

In his 24th season as head coach, Steve Antonucci, who took over the reins from Keith Comeforo in 1998, has guided Middletown South into the state playoffs every single season he’s been at the helm.

Let that sink in.

That’s twenty two straight seasons that the Eagles have qualified for the state playoffs - last year's playoffs were cancelled due to Covid. That’s unheard of in high school football with the constant turnover of students and the accompanying peaks and valleys of incoming blue-chip talent.

“When I took over back in 98’ the goal was to be a playoff team year-in-and-year-out,” said Antonucci. “I wanted to build consistency within a program that had won state championships before me. But my thing was, let’s make it to the playoffs every year, let’s make it something that we expect every year - to be there and expect to win.”

I’d say mission has been accomplished with flying colors.

Earlier this season, Antonucci recorded his 200th win in the Eagles 27-0 win over Jackson Memorial. With the win he became the ninth coach in Shore Conference history to reach that milestone and just the seventh to reach 200 wins entirely in within the Shore Conference.

His won/loss record stands at 204-60 which calculates to a 77 percent winning percentage and his teams have averaged an phenomenal 8.5 wins per season in 23 plus seasons. It just doesn’t get much better than that.

Antonucci has led Middletown South to six NJSIAA sectional titles, which is tied for second all-time in Shore Conference history behind the 11 won Vic Kubu at Manasquan and Middletown North. Five of his teams have finished 12-0, most recently the 2015 team that finished ranked No. 1 in New Jersey.

Middletown South Won The Colonial Division

As is always the case, Middletown South (7-1, 4-0) – the Colonial Division champions – qualified for the playoffs again this season and were given the second-seed in the NJSIAA North 2, Group 4 playoff bracket with Irvington (8-0) handed the No. 1 seed.

Last week in the first round they got by seventh-seeded North Hunterdon, 34-20, in a game that was closer than the score indicated.

Tied 20-20 with four minutes remaining in the game, the Eagles scored two touchdowns less than a minute apart.They recovered a fumble at the North Hunterdon 15-yard line and scored to give them a two-touchdown lead which they never relinquished.

Senior 5-foot-10, 170 pound running back Dan Primiano was a standout in the game rushing for 182 yards and three touchdowns and seems to peaking at just the right time. He’s rushed for 803 yards and 10 touchdowns on 119 carries this season for an impressive 6.75 yards per attempt average.

“Dan’s had two quality games in a row,” Antonucci said. “He’s rushed for close to 200 yards and three touchdowns in each game so he’s close to 400 yards and six touchdowns in the last two games. He’s not the biggest of kids but he’s shifty and more powerful than you think he is. And he’s got a little bit of a burst and he’ll get by you if he get’s around the corner and do some damage.”

The defense, which forced six turnovers, was led by senior inside linebacker Jack Willi, who recorded 13 tackles along with a tackle for loss, interception, forced fumble and fumble recovery. Rising sophomore outside linebacker Colin Gallagher added six tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, sack and a forced fumble.

Willi is tied for the team lead in tackles with 70 tackles (20 solo) along with 2.5 sacks, 8.5 TFL, interception, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery while Gallagher has added 52 tackles (23 solo), a team-leading 11 sacks, 17 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and a pass defended.

“Jack Willi is a two-year starter for us at middle linebacker and is a great player, he really is,” said Antonucci. “He’s a smart kid and kind of the leader of our defense it terms of getting the guys in the right places and doing the right thing. I can’t say enough good things about him.

“And Colin has been tremendous for us too,” added Antonucci. “He’s a sophomore playing outside linebacker and he got of to a terrific start. He leads our team in sacks, so he’s a kid we obviously got the most out of - he’s got a heck of a bright future ahead of him.”

Up next for the Eagles is third-seeded Sayreville (8-2, 5-0), ranked ninth in the Big Central Conference and the 5D champions, in the semifinals this Friday. Middletown South is ranked fourth in the Shore.

The Bombers are a familiar adversary for the Eagles having scrimmaged them often in the preseason.

Following South’s 2015 championship season Sayreville defeated the Eagles in a 2016 NJSIAA North 2, Group 4 semifinal matchup, 42-28. They then went on to win the sectional title finishing ranked No. 8 in the state.

So there may be a slight revenge factor thrown in even though the seniors were in eighth grade then.

“Sayreville and Middletown South go back a long way,” said Antonucci. “We scrimmage every year and it’s always a great scrimmage with us going up there and them coming down here. There’s definitely history between the two teams in state championship games and we have a lot of respect for each other.”

Middletown South will attempt to establish its running game early behind Primiano with sophomore Donovan Summey (42-185-2, 4.40 yards/attempt) getting involved in the running game as well. The 6-foot-1, 190 pound Summey is more of a power back than Primiano and is a productive runner between tackles giving the Eagles their own version of “Thunder and Lightning.”

“Donovan has come a long way and has been involved in the offense more the last couple of weeks scoring three touchdowns,” said Antonucci of his up-and-coming sophomore. “He’s a little bit bigger of a back - someone we can run between the tackles - so we’re excited about his future as well.”

Senior quarterback Thomas Schork is the epitome of what a leader should be. As a sophomore wide receiver the athletically gifted Schork led the team in receptions and was a second-team All-Division selection. However, the following season with the Eagles in need of a quarterback the 6-foot-2, 190 pounder selflessly accepted the role and has proven to be the ultimate field general ever since.

“Tommy’s tremendous, I have the utmost respect for him,” said Antonucci. “Tom’s taken one for the team so to speak. He’s an athlete playing quarterback for us. We were in need of someone to run our offense and we didn’t really have a guy ready so Tom took the reins last year. He feel into this role and has done a tremendous job as our leader. He’s a duel-threat guy with an explosive arm with real good vision as a runner, so he gives us both aspects of that and he’s getting better every day.”

Schork has completed 64-of-112 passes for 678 yards and four touchdowns with seven interceptions while rushing for an additional 238 yards and five touchdowns on 64 attempts for a 3.72 average.

An added bonus for Schork is an offensive line that mauls at the point of attack with a powerful push upfront that makes the running game go and gives Schork a protective barrier in the passing game.

Three-year starter Jake Williamson at left guard and returning starter Dante Miranda at left tackle anchor the offensive line. At 6-foot-3, 279 pounds Williamson and Miranda at 6-foot-4, 275 pounds give the Eagles blocks of granite on the left side of the line.

The right side of the line has some impressive size to it as well with 5-foot-11, 235 pound senior center Shawn Smith, 6-foot-3, 250 pound junior Thomas Whyte at right guard and 6-foot-1, 235 pound junior Tyler Addonisio at right tackle rounding out the offensive line starters.

The Eagles employ a multiple receiver set with senior Anthony Brassco (9-123-2) on the outside, three-year returning starter Matt Grab (9-65) in the slot position and senior Ryan St.Clair (12-129), junior Logan Colleran (9-98-1) and senior Matt Yeserski (4-29) all seeing time at the backside receiver spot.

Tight end Jack Latore (6-68-2) is also a favorite target of Schork. At 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, Latore, a three-year starter at both the tight end and defensive end position, has the length to be picked out of a crowd, the athleticism to come down with the 50/50 balls and the strength to wrestle the ball free on contested possessions.

The Eagles defense entered the playoffs allowing just 6.9 points per game with two shutouts to its credit.

“We’ve been tested but our defense is stout,” Antonucci said. “Our schedule was pretty tough up to this point but we feel like we’re in good shape defensively.”

Latore is constantly double and triple teamed but has the quickness to get around them and the brute strength to bull rush them.  An exceptional student, Latore holds multiple D-1 offers, including most of the Ivy League schools, FCS power, Villanova – ranked No. 11 – and FBS schools Temple and Tulane.

He leads the Eagles in tackles (70), solo tackles (31), tackles for loss (19.5), sacks (4.5) and forced fumbles (3) along with a fumble recovery.

“Jack’s another kid with great upside,” Antonucci said of his stud defensive end. “Every year he’s gotten better and better and has grown and gotten bigger and stronger. He’s become more of an impact player for us this year more than ever.”

Williamson is the other key component of the Eagles rugged three-man front. The senior tackle has recorded 28 tackles (6 solo), 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and two blocked passes while junior Aidan Parry (7 T, 1 TFL) starts at the other tackle spot.

“He (Latore) and Jake Williamson are real tough up front,” said Antonucci. “They make a great combination in terms of how we can play defense and what we can do with our line assignments.”

Willi on the inside and Gallagher head up the linebacker corps with 6-foot-2, 210 pound junior Jason Wagner next to Willi on the inside and 6-foot-2, 190 pound senior Tyler Carey playing at the hybrid linebacker/defensive back spot.

“Jack Willi is a two-year starter for us at middle linebacker and is a great player, he really is,” said Antonucci. “He’s a smart kid and kind of the leader of our defense it terms of getting the guys in the right places and doing the right thing. I can’t say enough good things about him.

Wagner is fourth on the team with 40 tackles (15 solo), .5 sack, two interceptions and a pass defended while Carey is right behind Wagner with 36 tackles (13 solo), four sacks – second on the team – 8.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and four passes defended.

The secondary is experienced and plays with confidence allowing them to play fast and react instinctively.

Grab is at one cornerback spot with Colleran at the other corner. Grab is second on the team with three interceptions and leads the team with six passes defended along with making 21 tackles (15 solo). The 6-foot-0, 170 pound Colleran has added two picks and five passes defended with 17 tackles (7 solo) and one tackle for loss.

Sophomore free safety Jake Czwakiel has had a breakout season for the Eagles. He leads the team with four interceptions and has four passes defended. He’s strong in run support as well making 33 tackles (18 solo) with 1.5 tackles for loss. Lanky 6-foot-1 senior Ryan St.Clair is at the strong safety spot and has added two passes defended and 21 tackles (6 solo). Schork see’s time at safety as well and adds guile to his competitive nature. He’s been in on 12 tackles (7 solo) and has one pick and a pass breakup.

Middletown South’s only loss of the season was a 12-7 defensive slugfest to Rumson-Fair Haven (8-1) while Sayreville, after losing its first two games of the season, has reeled off eight-straight wins.

The Eagles defense will have to contend with Sayreville’s rising sophomore running back Zamair Wright who has rushed for 1,327 yards averaging 6.6 yards per attempt and 147.4 yards per game while scoring an impressive 24 touchdowns.

“He’s a tremendous player,” said Antonucci. “He’s only a sophomore with a great upside. If you watch him on tape he’s a guy that has given a lot of trouble to teams. He’s been the center of their attention offensively and rightfully so. We’ve got our work cut out trying to contain him if we can.”

Junior Michael Colonnello is a  quarterback dual threat passing for 497 yards and with three passing touchdowns and five interceptions while rushing for 285 yards and a score on 53 attempts averaging 5.4 yards per carry.

His favorite target is Timmy Maher who averages 23.6 yards per catch with 11 receptions for 260 yards and two touchdowns.

Defensively, the Blue Bombers are led by linebackers Denzel Osae (38 T, 9 TFL, 6 SK) and Rodney Acquah (47 T, 3 TFL, 2 SK), lineman Claude Blagogee (29 T, 5 TFL, 2 SK) and defensive backs Caiden Holmes (66 T, 3 TFL, 2 SK, 3 FF, INT) and Osie Bonsu (46 T, 7 TFL).

This is a toss-up game if there ever was one. Whichever team can avoid costly turnovers and penalties and stick to its game plan will most likely win this game.

“Sayreville is always difficult to prepare for in that they give you a lot in terms of what they’re doing.” said Antonucci. They’re a blue collar team that always plays hard and they’re physical and always have a stout line with an athletic group of guys running around and that hasn’t changed.”

“But right now we’re probably playing the best we possibly can heading into the game,” added Antonucci. “I think both teams are similar in wanting to establish the running game before anything else. That will be the goal of both teams Friday night. We’re both here for the same reasons, we’re both gritty, tough, physical teams and it’s going to come down to who wins the battle up front and whoever gets the big stops on defense.”