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At most programs, throwing a bunch of sophomores into the starting lineup and riding the roller coaster to a .500 season wouldn’t raise many eyebrows.

At a Shore Conference standard-bearer like Middletown South, however, it resulted in the Eagles’ first non-winning season in 29 years when they made a first-round playoff exit and finished 5-5. The reason no one is worried that the sky is falling at a program that has reached 10 NJSIAA finals and won five state titles since 2000 is because those sophomores now form a strong junior core complemented by a group of talented senior returners and a loaded sophomore class with several players expected to make a significant impact.

“At some point, we had to go through some kind of rebuilding I’d guess you’d call it,’’ said 16th-year head coach Steve Antonucci, who is one win shy of 150 in his brilliant career. “It was hard, but we knew going in we were going to be young – we played eight sophomores on defense last season. As the season wore on, people started to see that those kids were sophomores, and they started taking advantage of some of the things that they weren’t used to. The outlook now is, can we take the next step now that they’ve played 10 games as sophomores and get on a playoff run and hopefully get back to a final.”

Junior Cole Rogers looks to be one of numerous weapons on Middletown South's offense this fall and also returns as a starter in the secondary. (Photo by Scott Stump)

With one of the more athletic groups of skill players they have had in recent years plus a veteran offensive line and a defense that returns almost the entire lineup, everything is in place for the Eagles to reclaim their spot among the Shore Conference elite.

“I see a bright future for this program,’’ said senior offensive lineman James Wilson.

The Eagles caught fire offensively in the final two games last season, combining for 88 points, and hope to carry that momentum into this fall with a deep group of skill players. Junior Matt Mosquera, who was outstanding as the placekicker and punter as a sophomore, takes over at quarterback in the spread option for Kyle Brey, who was fourth in the Shore Conference in passing yards as a senior last season.

“(Mosquera) is developing, and that’s what we need him to do,’’ Wilson said.  “We also need him to add that extra dimension and run more. Everything is fitting in well so far.”

The backfield is filled with potential between junior Cole Rogers, who started on defense last year, promising sophomore James McCarthy, and senior Corey Grant. Rogers ran for 148 yards and a touchdown on an average of 7.8 yards per carry in limited duty last year.

“We have three really good running backs,’’ said senior tight end/defensive end Pat Crowe. “They all have great speed and power.”

McCarthy starred on an undefeated freshman team last season and is one of multiple sophomores expected to make significant contributions this season. At 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, he reminds the coaching staff of Pete Tactikos, who starred at running back for the Eagles in the mid-1990s and was known as a physical runner who relished contact but also had good speed to the outside.

“James McCarthy is an animal,’’ Wilson said. “He is lightning – a tough kid who takes a hit.”

Sophomore Kevin Higgins will be at fullback in certain packages, and the 6-foot-4 Crowe returns after catching seven passes for 140 yards and a touchdown at tight end, where senior Dom Tobacco also will see time. Mosquera has two experienced targets at wide receiver in senior Nolan Pereless and his younger brother, junior Spencer Pereless. With 30 catches last season for 336 yards and a touchdown, Spencer Pereless had more catches than any other returning receiver in the Shore this season.

Nolan Pereless finished with 21 catches for 245 yards and a score, and those two lead a group that will also include junior Tom Coffey and senior Joe Timmins as threats.

“Receiver-wise, we’re not the biggest kids, but they are great route runners with good hands who are dangerous in space, and we can stick Pat Crowe out there from time to time for a mismatch,’’ Antonucci said. “I think from an offensive standpoint, we’re going to be pretty good.”

Bolstering that confidence in the offense is the fact that five players return with starting experience up front. Junior center Joey Rutkowski, senior left tackle Brian Joyce, and junior right tackle Tom Lopez are all back along with senior Kyle Maynes, who is being pushed at right guard by senior Mike Spendio. The 6-foot-5, 285-pound Wilson returns at left guard and has offers from Old Dominion, Youngstown State, Sacred Heart, Monmouth University, Fordham and St. Francis (Pa.), with Youngstown State looking like the front-runner. His younger brother, sophomore Mike Wilson, is also expected to see time in the offensive line rotation.

“Our offensive line this year is just so hungry to get after people,’’ Wilson said.

Mosquera will once again handle the placekicking and punting after a sophomore season in which he earned SSN third-team All-Shore honors by going a perfect 40-for-40 on extra points and 5-for-5 on field goals.

A veteran offensive line returns to help Middletown South bounce back from a .500 season. (Photo by Scott Stump)

Defensively, the Eagles have added some new wrinkles under veteran coordinator Al Bigos. They have moved from a 4-4 scheme to more of a 4-2-5 look after being shredded by the spread offense of Burlington Township in a wild, 52-45 loss in the first round of the Central Jersey Group IV playoffs last year. The Eagles gave up 24 points per game over the course of last season.

“Traditionally, we’ve been a defense-dominant team, and we’re going through a transition like a lot of other teams because nobody is lining up in the ‘I’ and trying to run power and iso any more,’’ Antonucci said. “Now everybody is spreading it around. We’ve got to be able to adjust.

“We had to come up with a way where we could defend the pass and still be sound in the run game. We’re still going to be a pressure team, but we’re going to do things a little bit differently, almost like the philosophy of the Seahawks, playing from the top down. We’re going to let you catch the ball in front of us, but we’re going to make you pay for it.”

Senior Dan Servidio is a returning starter at defensive tackle, with sophomore Will Gullick expected to start at the other tackle spot. Joyce and sophomore Robert Burke are also expected to be in the defensive tackle rotation. Crowe is a returning starter at defensive end, with Grant manning the other other end and Tobacco also expected to see time there.

“It’s been better,’’ Crowe said about the new scheme. “I’ve been playing more of an outside linebacker, and coming off the edge is a lot easier.”

The linebackers look to be a particular strength, with junior Dylan Rogers, Cole’s twin brother, returning at inside linebacker along with senior Sergio Gonzalez. Higgins also should see time at inside linebacker, while McCarthy will slide into an outside linebacker spot, where he has the potential to be an FBS-level recruit. Another promising sophomore, Maxx Imsho, will play a hybrid safety/linebacker spot, with Nolan Pereless, who led the team with four interceptions last year, returning to play the other hybrid spot.

Cole Rogers is a returning starter at cornerback, and junior Rob Hulse will start at the other cornerback spot after seeing time last year. Junior Ed Pinto is also in the rotation at cornerback.

“I think right now from a defensive standpoint, we’re a hell of a lot better than we were a year ago,’’ Antonucci said.

They enter the Class A North race chasing Manalapan, which has won the division four straight years, becoming one of the rare teams to beat Middletown South four straight times. The Eagles look to be once again be one of the primary obstacles to the Braves’ quest for another division title.

“I like being the underdog because the underdog can always prove someone wrong,’’ Wilson said.

The returners are also trying to rid their minds of the memory of the Burlington Township loss and make last season seem more like a temporary hiccup during a long stretch of success than an ominous sign of things to come.

“During the offseason, we couldn’t get it out of our minds,’’ Crowe said. “We just have to push through that and get back to the state championship.”

 

Head coach: Steve Antonucci, 16th season

Career record: 149-34

Assistant coaches: Al Bigos (asst. head coach/def. coord.); Joe O’Connor (off. coord.); Steve Roberts (LB/WR/spec. teams); Joe Passo (QB); Nick Trezza (OL); Rich Read (off. coord./OL); Howard Barbieri (OL); R.J. Read (WR); Joe Mirault (DL); Tom Grier (off. asst.); Rod Murchie, Rick Taylor (freshman); Stacy White (athletic trainer)

2013 record: 5-5 (4-2)

Big Shoes to Fill: Dan Servidio, Sr., DT

Servidio will have to help fill the void in production left by the graduation of the defensive tackle tandem of All-Division talent Conner Spreen and one of the Shore’s best, University of Pennsylvania freshman Tayler Hendrickson.

X-factor: Matt Mosquera

If the junior quarterback can help give the Eagles a balanced attack by being efficient in the passing game and also hurt teams in the option by running the ball, this offense should be a handful with a talented backfield behind him.

Glue Guy: Cole Rogers, Jr., RB/DB

Rogers should be a key piece in the backfield and is a fixture in the secondary. He has been playing in big varsity games since his freshman season and is a seasoned veteran by this point.

Impact Newcomer: James McCarthy, So., RB/LB

McCarthy should instantly boost the Eagles’ running game and also has All-Shore potential as a linebacker. He starred on the freshman team last year and saw a little bit of varsity action later in the season, so he is ready to make an immediate impact.

Pivotal Game: Oct. 17 at Manalapan

This game should once again go a long way toward deciding the Class A North title and net the winner a haul of power points for a high playoff seeding. The Eagles will try to find a way to solve the Braves after four straight Manalapan wins.