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On the surface, Middletown North struggled last season with a 3-6 final record. But a closer look shows a team that was a couple of close losses away from being a .500 squad and suffering a potentially different fate in terms of state playoff seeding.

The Lions started the season 3-1, rebounding from a 14-3 loss to Manalapan to post three straight wins over Central, Lacey, and Southern. A five-game losing streak to end the season put a damper on things, however. Middletown North dropped close contests to Long Branch (14-10) and Ocean (34-28 in overtime) where the team could have easily been 5-1 heading into a showdown with Toms River North. Following a loss to Toms River North, the Lions fell to North Hunterdon in the first round of the state playoffs and then lost to Middletown South on Thanksgiving.

Middletown North will have to replace First Team All-Shore defensive standouts Jack Lopez and Peter Dempsey and that won’t be easy, but with a total of nine returning starters, head coach Steve Bush feels the team has a good mix of returners and promising newcomers that can put together a bounce-back season.

The team’s spread offense returns seven starters and two others who saw significant playing time including a few starts. Senior quarterback Luke Sheehan returns (6-1, 190) after throwing for 1,188 yards and eight touchdowns last season. He was a first team all-division selection. His top target from a year ago returns in senior wideout Dylan Briggs (32 rec., 311 yards, 2 TDs) along with seniors Ka’Ley Spearman-Young and Brian Dunleavy as returning starters. Seniors Frank Zaino and Richie Welton round out the wide receiver corps. Briggs and Spearman-Young were both second-team all-division selections.

Starting running back Neno Morgan-Acker returns after a solid junior season in which he rushed for 652 yards and five touchdowns, highlighted by a 190-yard performance vs. Ocean. He was also a second-team all-division pick last season.

The offensive line has to replace Lopez and standout Lucas Ainbinder and returns just two starters. Junior center Andrew Klimovich (5-9, 235) will be entering his third year as a starter and senior Thomas Randolph (6-3, 225) is at right tackle. Junior Michael Dwyer (6-4, 225) started on defense last season and will now start at left tackle. The left guard position is between junior Anthony Lubrano (6-2, 300) and senior Giovanni Antonucci (5-9, 310) and the right guard is sophomore Shea Mora (6-1, 295).

At tight end will be senior Gavin Halloran (6-1, 220) and junior Brody Tooker (6-0, 210).

On the other side of the ball, the challenge for the Lions and longtime defensive coordinator Geoff Massimini will be breaking in several new players in a 3-3 stack defense that returns just two starters.

Dwyer at defensive end and senior Justin Soto at middle linebacker are the lone returners, and both were productive last season in earning second-team all-division honors. Soto recorded 71 tackles and six tackles for loss and is the team’s returning leader in both categories.

The rest of the defensive line has Tooker and junior Chris Dzienisiewski (6-2, 200) at defensive end, Randolph behind Dwyer at the other defensive end spot, and Antonucci, Lubrano, and Klimovich as the defensive tackles.

The outside linebackers are senior Nicky Scerbo on one side and Halloran/senior Jake Minson on the other side. The secondary features Spearman-Young and junior TJ Rey as the cornerbacks along with Briggs and senior Colin Jacques. Junior Brian O’Donnell is the free safety and the strong safety position has Zaino, junior Joe Grasso (6-4, 200), and sophomore Jack Viola.

On special teams, Middletown North returns one of the Shore’s top kickers in senior Ian Poole-Morgan. He was the All-Colonial Division kicker last season when he converted 16 of 16 extra points and kicked four field goals with a long of 37 yards. Halloran returns as the starting punter.

After competing in the Colonial Division last season with Toms River North, Long Branch, Lacey, Southern Regional, and Central Regional, Middletown North is aligned in the Freedom Division with Howell, Jackson Memorial, Lacey, Marlboro, and Southern. It’s a balanced division that should feature some great games, and if the Lions can get a big year out of Sheehan and Morgan-Acker and the defense comes together, they’ll be in contention to the end.


At a Glance

Head coach: Steve Bush, 11th season (17th overall in NJ)

Career record: 127-104-1 (45-56 at Middletown North)

2022 record: 3-6

Offense: Spread

Defense: 3-3 stack

Coaching staff: Geoff Massimini (Defensive Coordinator/LB/TE); Fred Stengel (OL/DL); Justin McGhee (DL/OL/JV Head Coach); Connor Welsh (RB/SS); Donald Glenn (WR/DB); Larry McKnight (OL/DL); Danielle Kanski (Athletic Trainer).


Circle the Date: Week 3 – Friday, Sept. 15 vs. Jackson Memorial

The Jaguars tied for the Constitution Division title last season and reached the semifinals of the Central Jersey Group 4 playoffs, so they should be considered the favorite in the division. A win here by the Lions would stamp them as the early division leader.


Player to Watch: Luke Sheehan, Sr., QB

Quarterbacks in their second year starting in Bush’s offense tend to put up big numbers and the Lions are hoping that is the case with Sheehan. He threw for 1,188 yards and eight touchdowns to finish 11th in the Shore in passing yards last season.


Impact Newcomer: Brody Tooker, Jr., TE/DE

Tooker looks to be a starter at defensive end along with seeing playing time at tight end.


Big Shoes to Fill: The defensive line

Jack Lopez and Peter Dempsey were two of the Shore’s best defensive linemen last season and were a dynamic duo that terrorized opposing offensive lines, combining for 12 sacks and 32 tackles for loss. How Middletown North replaces at least some of that production will be crucial for a defense with nine new starters.


Did you Know?

Middletown North assistant Donald Glenn is the Shore Conference’s all-time leading passer with 7,541 yards and is the only player in Shore Conference history to throw for over 7,000 yards in his career. He led the Lions to the North 2, Group 4 sectional final in 2016 and a 9-3 record.



Friday 8/25@Freehold Township6pm
Friday 9/1@Brick Memorial6pm
Friday 9/8@Howell6:30pm
Friday 9/15Jackson Memorial7pm
Friday 9/22@Southern7pm
Friday 10/6Lacey7pm
Friday 10/13Brick7pm
Saturday 10/21@Marlboro12pm
Thursday 11/23Middletown South10:30am



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