Krellin and Higgins Lead Dominant Defense as Middletown South Grabs Division Title
WALL - Defense won a championship for Middletown South on Friday night as the Eagles stifled Wall in a 22-3 victory to grab at least a tie for the Class B North title and unofficially lock up the No. 1 seed in the North II, Group IV bracket.
The swarming Middletown South defense limited the No. 8 Crimson Knights (6-2, 3-2) to 157 total yards, including only 34 total yards and zero first downs in the second half until two first downs and a harmless 30-yard run on the game's final drive.
Junior defensive end Jake Krellin was named the Shore Sports Network Player of the Game with three sacks and five tackles for a loss or no gain while also causing an intentional grounding call in the end zone that resulted in a safety.
Senior linebacker Kevin Higgins was also outstanding with 12 tackles, two sacks, two tackles for a loss and a 40-yard interception return for a touchdown, and senior defensive tackle Will Gulick added three sacks to help the No. 4 Eagles (6-2, 5-0) end a two-game losing streak. Middletown South also held Wall standout running back Sean Larkin to 13 yards on 10 carries in his first game back after being out with a concussion.
"We are the defending state champs and we want to keep it like that, so we knew this was our first playoff game and it was going to set the tone,'' Higgins said. "We knew they weren't as fast and as strong (as the two previous teams we played), so we knew we were going to be able to bully them a little bit. Our defensive line played unbelievably and got tremendous pressure."
The Eagles got things started on special teams as senior Ian Porter recovered a muffed punt at Wall's 40-yard line after Middletown South went three-and-out to open the game. The Crimson Knights paid for their mistake when the Eagles took a 7-0 lead on a seven-play drive that culminated in a one-yard touchdown run for sophomore Anthony Summey, who finished with a game-high 78 yards rushing on 17 carries.
That's the way the score would remain until the final seconds of the half, as Middletown South sacked Wall quarterback Eddie Scott six times before the break, including three by Gulick.
"It looked like (Scott) hadn't been pressured all year, and if you're gonna play us, you better be able to handle some pressure,'' Eagles head coach Steve Antonucci said.
Wall got on the board when Scott found senior wideout R.J. Janeczek for a 47-yard bomb to Middletown South's 6-yard line inside the final minute of the half. After Gulick sacked Scott on third-and-goal, the field goal team rushed onto the field with no timeouts and junior Aidan Mulreed booted a 30-yard field goal as time expired to cut the lead to 7-3 at the break.
It was all Middletown South in the second half, with the defense setting the tone by forcing a three-and-out on Wall's opening drive. The Eagles, who dominated field position all night, then started at Wall's 45, taking a 13-3 lead when Summey scored on a four-yard run set up by his own 22-yard burst with 8:52 left in the third quarter.
Middletown South had just seen two of the top offensive teams in the state in Toms River North and St. John Vianney, so the battle-tested Eagles were ready for a Crimson Knights team that entered fifth in the Shore at 30.6 points per game.
"No one's going to compare to the size and speed of those two teams, they were definitely the best we've faced,'' Higgins said. "The (Wall) quarterback and those receivers are very good, but (Toms River North wide receiver) Bryce Watts and those guys, they're tough to hang with, so it definitely prepared us a little bit."
"Taking nothing away from them because they're a good football team, but (Wall) is a team we can run with and play with,'' Antonucci said. "Those two other teams are on another level right now. We had a championship on the line tonight and our kids played for it."
On Wall's ensuing possession, Higgins jumped in front of a short pass by Scott and took off for a 40-yard interception return that boosted the lead to 20-3 with 7:45 left in the quarter. That helped blow the game open on a night when Wall's defense actually held Middletown South to only 142 yards of their own.
After Wall came up with a stop on fourth down at its own 8-yard line early in the fourth quarter, Krellin came flying in on the next play and whipped Scott to the ground as he threw the ball away. Scott was whistled for intentional grounding, resulting in a safety and a 22-3 lead that ended any suspense with 7:40 left in the game.
The win guarantees two home playoff games for the Eagles, who are the defending champions in North II, Group IV after going 12-0 last season.
"No team (in the playoffs) is going to be like the two teams we lost to,'' Higgins said. "I definitely feel confident."
This also marks their second straight division title and the 19th overall in their proud history. They can win the Shore Conference's toughest, most competitive division outright by beating Middletown North on Thanksgiving. Friday night also marked the Eagles' fifth win of the season against a team that was ranked in the SSN Top 10 at one point in the season.
"Week in and week out this has been a grind,'' Antonucci said. "To have a piece of this right now says a lot about these kids."
Middletown South 22, Wall 3
. M W
First downs 9 7
Rushes-yards 36-82 28-70
Passing 7-12-0 7-18-1
Passing yards 60 87
Fumbles-lost 1-0 1-1
Penalties 5-30 3-13
Midd. South (6-2, 5-0) 7 0 13 2 - 22
Wall (6-2, 3-2) 0 3 0 0 - 3
M: Summey 1-yard run (Kaldrovics kick).
W: Mulreed 30-yard field goal.
M: Summey 4-yard run (kick failed).
M: Higgins 40-yard INT return (Kaldrovics kick).
M: Intentional grounding in end zone by Wall.
Rushing - M: Dube 3-(-9), Agrawal 9-(-8), Imsho 2-3, Summey 17-78, Alessi 5-18. W: Larkin 10-13, E. Scott 14-17, McNally 4-40.
Passing - M: Agrawal 7-12-0 60. W: E. Scott 7-18-1 87.
Receiving - M: Lewandowski 4-20, Krellin 1-17, Joyce 2-23. W: G. Scott 4-37, Larkin 2-3, Janeczek 1-47.
Interceptions - M: Higgins 1-40.