With a roster full of talented and experienced players, Middletown South entered the 2015 season with great expectations as the No. 1 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10. What the Eagles ended up accomplishing somehow exceeded those lofty goals, and a major reason why was the guidance of 2015 Shore Sports Network Coach of the Year Steve Antonucci.

Middletown South head coach Steve Antonucci.

The Eagles finally captured what had been an elusive 10th sectional title in program history and finished 12-0 for the first time since 2005, dominating from start to finish by defeating every team on their schedule by at least three touchdowns. The Eagles reached heights most didn’t think possible in the day and age of high-powered parochial schools by finishing No. 1 in the state by NJ.com. They are the first public school to finish as the top-ranked team in the state since they did it in 2005 with a team featuring future NFL running back Knowshon Moreno and Stanford linebacker Nick Macaluso.

What separated Middletown South was its greatness in all three phases of the game. A high-scoring offense, a shutdown defense and special teams that did all the right things made it tough to find any weakness to try to exploit.

“We had all those great players but it was really about having no star,” Antonucci said. “We had Cole and Dylan (Rogers), but week to week you look at what we did and there were different names involved in our wins. Jeff Lewandowski returns the opening kickoff of the state championship (to the 9-yard line) - Jeremy Joyce, Tom Coffey, Spencer Pereless - there were a litany of names that made us special.”

“And the same thing on defense,” Antonucci continued. “It’s maybe the best group of linebackers (Dylan Rogers and juniors James McCarthy and Kevin Higgins) I’ve ever had, all together, and then you add Maxx Imsho at strong safety,” Antonucci said. “How do you handle all these guys?”

Middletown South is the model of consistency in the Shore Conference and Antonucci is one of the most respected coaches in the state. Coming into the season the Eagles had reached 11 sectional finals in the last 14 seasons, but had not been able to take home a state title since 2006. The Eagles had been 0-5 in state finals since, including a loss to Jackson Memorial in the 2014 Central Jersey Group IV final.

Photo by Eric Braun)

This season the Eagles got back in the championship win column with a 35-7 victory over Phillipsburg in the North Jersey Section 2, Group IV championship game to complete a wire-to-wire finish as the No. 1 team in the Shore Conference.

“After you don’t experience something like this for nine years, it brings back that hunger for it,” Antonucci said following the championship game.

With all the talk of a potential return to glory in the preseason, things didn’t start out the way Middletown South had hoped. The Eagles fell behind 21-3 to South Brunswick in the season-opener, but what happened over the next three quarters set the tone for the entire season. Middletown South stormed back to win that game 41-21 and never looked back.

Middletown South would go on to score 40 points or more in its next five games while recording three shutouts. That included a 42-7 win over a Manalapan team that had won five straight games against the Eagles, and subsequently five straight Class A North division titles. Then came another big regular-season test against Brick Memorial where the Eagles shut down the Mustangs’ powerful triple-option offense in a 21-3 win.

They cruised into the playoffs with an 8-0 record where they crushed West Windsor-Plainsboro North 55-0 and blew out rival Middletown North 41-14. The Eagles then beat Middletown North 39-16 on Thanksgiving to wrap up their first division title since 2009.

Phillipsburg was the two-time defending sectional champion and is a storied program, but the Eagles were just on another level.

Under Antonucci, Middletown South had the Shore Conference’s No. 1 scoring defense at 7.4 points per game. Led by Dylan Rogers, the Shore Sports Network Defensive Player of the Year, the Eagles defense allowed more than 20 points just once during the season. Rogers finished with single-season program record 132 tackles, and McCarthy and Higgins teamed with him to form one of the state’s most fearsome groups of linebackers. Imsho tied for the Shore Conference lead in interceptions with seven and Coffey added six. Defensive linemen Will Gulick, a junior, and Jake Krellin, a sophomore, played standout roles as well.

Offensively, Cole Rogers ran for 1,570 yards and 24 touchdowns and senior quarterback Matt Mosquera threw for 1,509 yards and 19 touchdowns as the Eagles averaged 40.9 points per game, second best in the Shore Conference.

Antonucci kept his team focused the entire way, as there were no let ups against a schedule that included a Central Jersey Group V champion South Brunswick, Central Jersey Group IV finalist Brick Memorial and playoff teams Freehold Township, Manalapan and Freehold in the regular season.

“The one thing about this group is they were very loose, but when the whistle blew and the game started they gave you maximum effort,” Antonucci said. “They never got flustered. You go back to Jackson last year (in the Central Jersey Group IV final) down 21-3 and we fought and clawed back. The South Brunswick game was the same thing, but we never felt like we were out of the game.”

“The one thing about these guys is that when they had you down you weren’t getting back up.”

With the win, Antonucci tied retired Hall of Famers Mike Ciccotelli of Keyport and Warren Wolf of Brick with the second-most state titles of any coach in Shore Conference history with the sixth of his brilliant career. Antonucci, who played for Ciccotelli on the Red Raiders in the late 1980s, is now only behind late Hall of Famer Vic Kubu, who had 11 titles between stints at Middletown North and Manasquan.