Football – Tunnel Vision: 2016 Middletown South Preview
Every high school football team's ultimate goal is to win a state title and do so without a blemish on their schedule. There are a select few public schools in New Jersey that can realistically set that goal year after year, and one of those juggernauts is Middletown South.
The Eagles captured the program’s 10th sectional title last season by going 12-0 and claiming the NJSIAA North Jersey 2, Group IV state title. With a loaded senior class and plenty of standout underclassmen ready to make an impact, Middletown South is ready to do it all over again in 2016.
“Our goal is to get back there, and we’ll find a way,” said Eagles head coach Steve Antonucci.
Even with the loss of first-team All-Shore linebacker James McCarthy, a University of Pennsylvania recruit, to an ACL injury, Middletown South returns a ton of talent at multiple positions. Kevin Higgins, Jake Krelin, Maxx Imsho, Will Gulick and Robert Burke were All-Shore players last season, and several more played key roles on the No. 1 team in the state.
“We have a really strong senior class this year with a lot of us playing since sophomore year,” said senior Samson Dube. “It stinks not having James but we have a lot of good players to try and fill that spot.”
Middletown South is a program uniquely equipped to deal with significant losses. In addition to losing McCarthy to injury, quarterback Matt Mosquera, running back Cole Rogers and SSN Defensive Player of the Year Dylan Rogers have graduated.
“It’s next man up, and we try to preach that,” Antonucci said. “We don’t want guys standing around at practice. The only way to get on the field for us is to work hard in practice. We hammer that home, to be involved and work for an opportunity to play for us.”
The Eagles pistol spread offense that operates at warp speed will have a new quarterback. Senior Brendan Donlon has been in the program and knows the offense, and the Eagles also have Holmdel transfer Aneesh Agrawal, who was a two-year starter for the Hornets. Agrawal goes to High Technology High School in Lincroft, but played for the Hornets since he lived in Holmdel. He remains at High Tech, but since his family moved to Middletown he has a new home for athletics. So far it’s been an even competition for the starting job.
“I think it’s great, and they’ve become good friends,” Antonucci said. “Aneesh is very sharp and picked up the offense really well. His edge is his game experience. Brendan knows the nuances of our offense and getting us into the right checks and right plays. The question for Brendan is how he handles game situations. I don’t know if we’ll be a two-headed quarterback system or not. You might see both guys on the field at the same time. It’s been a good battle and we’ll try to make a decision.”
“It’s hard to replace Matt Mosquera, but Brendan Donlon is doing a great job handling the offense and Aneesh, even though he just came in, is very smart and picking it up quickly,” Imsho said. “We’ll see Week One who’s going to win it.”
The H-back spot is Higgins with Krelin and sophomore Matt Tardy in the mix. There was going to be a deep rotation at running back even with McCarthy healthy, but with him out it’s down to Imsho, Dube and junior Chaz Alessi. Providing an unexpected boost is sophomore Anthony Summey, who transferred from Red Bank Catholic two weeks ago. He is eligible to play right away, according to Antonucci.
The good news for whoever wins the quarterback job is the Eagles return an experienced group of wide receivers. Seniors Jeremy Joyce and Jeff Lewandowski are returning starters and Dube has played there in the past. Sophomore Rob Zega and Imsho could also see time at receiver.
“The great thing about them is they know the system,” Antonucci said. “They’re in the right places all the time so it’s just a matter of the quarterbacks getting the ball to them.”
The offensive line has four returning starters with 6-foot-4, 285-pound senior three-year starter Mike Wilson at left tackle. Senior Will Gulick is the left guard, senior Adam Markmann is the right guard and senior Robert Burke is the right tackle. Senior Mike Walsh is the center and has some experience playing last season.
Even though the Eagles have had some explosive offense over the years, including averaging over 40 points per game last year, their identity has always been on defense. Five starters return from the Shore’s No. 1 unit as Middletown South looks to have another ferocious defensive presence.
Gulick at tackle and Krelin at end are returning starters in the 4-2-5 base called by veteran coordinator Al Bigos, while junior Jake Bancala at tackle and Tardy at end will step into starting roles. Higgins is back at inside linebacker and will be joined by junior Chris Patterson in place of McCarthy. The outside linebacker/strong safety hybrids are Imsho, a three-year starter, and senior Ian Porter.
In the secondary, Dube is a returning starter at free safety. Senior Ryan Ruzieki will start at one cornerback spot, while the other will be staffed by either Joyce or senior Connor O’Gurk.
“Replacing James is tough but we’ll be alright,” Imsho said. “Fly to the ball and win all the reps is our philosophy.”
Higgins was a third-team All-Shore selection and underrated simply because he played next to McCarthy and Dylan Rogers, both of whom were first-team All-Shore picks. Imsho was also a first-team All-Shore selection, and the two combine to lead the defense.
“Kevin is a guy who knows the system, and between him and Maxx the communication is there,” Antonucci said. “Maxx knows the defense like he wrote it, and Kevin is the same way.”
Replacing Mosquera at kicker and punter is perhaps the biggest challenge of all for Middletown South. A two-time first-team All-Shore selection, Mosquera is one of the best kickers in Shore Conference history. Sophomore Chris Kaldrovics has been working in at kicker, but the Eagles were also trying out some former soccer players. Dube will be the punter.
On paper the Eagles have everything it takes to finish the season as state champs and No. 1 in the Shore. That’s where they’ll start, but staying there won’t be easy. In addition for a challenging Class B North schedule, Middletown South has nondivisional games against returning state champs Rumson-Fair Haven and Toms River North, and returning finalist St. John Vianney.
Head Coach: Steve Antonucci, 19th season.
Career Record: 170-37.
Coaching staff: Al Bigos (def. coord.); Joe O’Connor (off. coord.); Steve Roberts (spec. teams/LB); R.J. Read (QB); Nick Trezza (OL); Rich Read (off. asst.); Joe Passo (DB); Joe Mirault (DL); Rod Murchie, Tom Nicholes, Brian Klein (freshmen); Stacy White (athletic trainer).
2015 Record: 12-0 (7-0).
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Brendan Donlon, Sr., QB and Aneesh Agrawal, Sr., QB
Both players are still battling for the starting position, and the Eagles may eventually rotate both. Whoever wins the starting job will be following two-year starter Matt Mosquera.
X-FACTOR: The schedule
Plain and simple, Middletown South’s schedule is absolutely brutal. Aside from playing in Class B North with the likes of Red Bank Catholic, Ocean, Middletown North, Wall, Manasquan and Long Branch, the Eagles have nondivisional games against returning state champs Rumson-Fair Haven and Toms River North, plus a nondivisional game against Non-Public Group III finalist St. John Vianney.
GLUE GUY: Maxx Imsho, Sr., RB/DB
A three-year starter on defense who knows the schemes as well as the coaching staff, Imsho is a returning first-team All-Shore player.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Anthony Summey, So. RB
Summey transferred from Red Bank Catholic weeks before the season opener and is eligible to play right away. He adds to an already deep group of running backs.
PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 16 vs. Ocean
You could close your eyes and point at a game on the schedule and wouldn’t be wrong, but we’ll go with a Week Two divisional battle against an Ocean team that features Pitt recruit Kenny Pickett at quarterback.
Football editor Bob Badders can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.