MIDDLETOWN - In the midst of a dark time, maybe the dimmest of his football career, Nico Santorelli unknowingly shared a motivational light...one responsible for igniting the fuse within Manalapan teammate Andre Johnson. 

Santorelli may not have truly known how inspiring his work ethic was for Johnson. The senior duo shared a unique relationship, close as teammates playing the same position; Santorelli the Braves’ feature back with Johnson his trusted understudy. They pushed each other to find the best in their football souls. 

The script took an unfortunate twist a few weeks ago, when Santorelli suffered a knee injury during an August practice. A concerned Johnson reached out to his fallen comrade, not as backup frothing at an opportunity, but a friend with genuine concerns for a buddy’s well being. 

“The day after, he texted me that he was in the hospital and didn’t know for sure what was going on,” Johnson recalled, later finding out the news everyone feared, that Santorelli had torn his ACL. “I texted back ‘I got you’ and that he was passing the torch.”

Dedicated to honoring Santorelli in the best manner he could conceive, Johnson carried the beacon with a piece of his pal embedded in his heart. Debuting as the starter for the Braves on Friday night, Johnson unveiled the variety of ways in which he can make a positive impact, backing three rushing touchdowns with a pivotal reception and lively defensive play on the corner, sparking Manalapan to a 23-13 victory over Middletown South in an American Division clash at The Swamp.

Manalapan RB Andre Johnson chats with Shore Sports Network's Ed Sarluca (Photo by Steve Meyer)
Manalapan RB Andre Johnson chats with Shore Sports Network's Ed Sarluca (Photo by Steve Meyer)

A year ago, Johnson totaled 150 rushing yards and three TDs as a junior. He nearly surpassed both numbers on Opening Night, parlaying 14 carries into 110 yards and trio of scores.

"It’s awful when you lose a guy like Nico. He’s so good, so talented and a great teammate," said Manalapan senior quarterback Sean Kehley. "But, we knew we had 'Dre and we were confident in him from the start."

A faith he only fortified. Faced with a third and nine from the Middletown South 45 on the initial drive of the contest, Kehley reinforced his trust in Johnson, finding the 5-8, 175-pounder on a delicate screen that unfolded into a 40-yard gain. On the ensuing play, Johnson covered the final five yards, staking the Braves to a lead they never relinquished. 


"We knew they were trying to get after me," Kehley said of the pressure Middletown South was spilling into the pocket. "They came through the line and we figured we could drop a screen behind them. It was as big play that worked out and got ‘Dre on a roll. He took off and played great all night."  


An errant snap on a Middletown South punt resulted in a safety that bumped the lead to 9-0 with 6:49 showing in the first quarter and Johnson tacked on scoring bursts of 18 and 62 yards before halftime, sending the Braves into intermission, with a 23-0 cushion. 

  A grateful Johnson spread gratitude for his rousing debut to all that played a part in it.

"I’d like to thank my linemen and my quarterback, Sean Kehley, so much for what they’ve done for me," he said. "And, I have to thank Nico. All of his hard work makes me push myself."

Andre Johnson of Manalapan (Photo by Steve Meyer)
Andre Johnson of Manalapan (Photo by Steve Meyer)

While Johnson grabbed a great deal of the limelight, complementing his offensive fireworks with reliable defense at cornerback, he'd be the first to make sure others weren't overshadowed. Kehley was surgically sharp, completing 8 of 11 passes for 157 yards, dispersed among five different receiving sources. And, senior strong safety Justin Reilly, along with junior corner Anthony Matrone headlined a defense that staved off Middletown South threats throughout the first half, including halting a pair of Eagles' drives that stalled in the red zone.

Middletown South finally pierced that defensive armor in the third quarter. Senior quarterback Vinny Bonavita connected with senior wide receiver Matt Krellin for touchdown strikes of 18 and 36 yards to close the gap to a 23-13 midway through the fourth. However, after the Eagles forced a turnover with just under four minutes to play, Johnson and Matrone made critical stops that thwarted South in a bid to narrow the gap further, helping to seal the outcome.  


Bonavita backed 89 rushing yards on 14 keeps by going 13 of 21 through the air for an additional 145 yards. Krellin finished with six receptions that reaped 124 yards.


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