It surely isn’t any consolation to the players and coaches, but Middletown North was probably the best 2-8 team in New Jersey last fall.

The Lions faced eight teams that qualified for the NJSIAA playoffs last season, including Non-Public Group 3 champion Red Bank Catholic, Central Jersey Group 4 champion Long Branch and Central Jersey Group 3 champion Rumson-Fair Haven. They had a two-point loss to Freehold, a one-touchdown loss to Central Jersey Group 4 finalist Brick, nearly stunned RBC late in the season and fell to rival Middletown South by a just field goal on Thanksgiving.

Gone are key players like quarterback Sean Glenn, receiver Aidan Campbell, running backs Connor Robbins and Rob Higgins and defensive stalwarts Steven Holler, Alec Zenker, Stephen Barry and Patrick Connelly. Six starters return on offense, however, led by three offensive lineman and versatile running back/wide receiver Anthony Soto. Defensively, senior linebackers Eddie Farrell and Travis Thompson along with Soto and senior Matt Spencer at the safety spots will anchor that side of the ball.

“We are young and learning,” said Middletown North head coach Steve Bush. “We have some good ones but they don’t have a lot of game experience yet.”

That, it appears, will be the hill the Lions need to climb early in the season. The quicker the unproven players get up the speed, the quicker the Lions can find out if they are contenders for the Constitution Division title.

After playing in the Colonial Division last year with Rumson-Fair Haven, Brick, Brick Memorial, St. John Vianney, and Freehold, Middletown North will now tangle with Brick Memorial, Freehold Township, Howell, Marlboro, and Southern in the new-look Constitution Division. The Lions also have a very tough nondivisional schedule with games against Long Branch, Mater Dei Prep, Wall and the annual showdown with Middletown South.

“It’s always a challenge (in the Shore Conference),” Bush said. “Last year was really tough playing the best of the best every week but I think the division we’re in now is still strong. We have to be ready to compete every week.”

Middletown North's Rob Kelly (71), Andrew Kanski (59), Kaden LeTual (58), Matt Spencer (21) and Anthony Soto (5).
Photo by Paula Lopez/palimages.com

Player to Watch: Anthony Soto, Sr., RB 

Soto played wide receiver for the Lions over the past two years, finishing last season with team-high 38 receptions for 470 yards and two touchdowns. His 38 receptions were the fourth-most in the conference. With some voids to fill and depth at wide receiver, Middletown North has moved Soto to running back where they feel his athleticism combined with his already-proven receiving talents will give them a multi-dimensional back to balance their spread offense.

“He’s probably our best athlete and we want to get him the ball as much as we can,” Bush said. “He carried the ball some on jet sweeps last year and did a good job with that. He can make people miss as a runner. We know he’s good coming out of the backfield or we can go with some empty sets and put him out as a receiver. He’s much stronger this year, as well, so I think once he settles into the position he’ll do a really good job.”

 

Player Under the Radar: Travis Thompson, Sr., LB/TE

An integral player on both sides of the ball, Thompson is back as a two-way starter at tight end and middle linebacker. He is the Lions’ leading returning tackler after making 90 stops along with two sacks last season.

 

Top Unit: Offensive line 

Middletown North brings back three starters along the offensive line with senior Rob Kelly (6-0, 297) at left guard, senior Andrew Kanski (5-8, 230) at center, and senior Kaden LeTual (6-2, 215) at right tackle. Junior Nico Cerbo (5-11, 210), who is a standout wrestler for the Lions, joins the fold at left tackle along with junior Adam Ibraimovic (5-11, 260) at right guard. Thompson is also back at tight end along with junior Logan Halloran (6-3, 225).

“They have a pretty good understanding of what we’re trying to do and they’re physically able,” Bush said. “It’s unusual we have three returning starters there just because it’s usually made up of seniors because of the size and strength that’s needed. Having those three guys started the whole season last year and adding the new guys who are doing a good job; we like to be as balanced as we can and they give us that ability.”

 

Middletown North will be successful if…

…It wins the turnover battle, avoids major injuries and gets key contributions from some of the first-year starters. These are not issues specific to Middletown North, but they apply to the Lions, nonetheless. Middletown North was minus-4 in turnover margin last season, so whether it be by protecting the ball better on offense or taking it away more frequently on defense, it’s a statistic the Lions will want to shift into plus territory. Staying healthy speaks for itself. Very few teams can sustain a significant injury to a key player or nagging injuries to many players and still achieve their goals. As for the new starters, the spotlight will shine brighter on some, which brings us to…

 

New arm 

For the first time in the last seven seasons, someone with a last name other than Glenn will quarterback Middletown North’s spread offense. After four record-setting years of Donald Glenn followed by Sean Glenn piloting the team for the last two years, senior Nick Ferreira takes over at the most important position on the field. The 5-foot-9, 190-pounder brings more of a dual-threat element to the position whereas the Glenn brothers were more traditional pocket passers.=

“He’s an athletic kid and a competitor,” Bush said. “He’s done a good job learning the offense and has played well so far in scrimmages. We’ll probably let him run a little bit more than we have with our quarterbacks in the past.”

Senior Matt Spencer will serve as the backup quarterback.

 

In good hands 

If the offensive line is the Lions’ best unit, the wide receiver group is not far behind. That’s particularly impressive considering Soto, last year’s leading receiver, moved from receiver to running back and standout Aidan Campbell graduated. Spencer (6-1, 150) enters the season as the No. 1 receiver with junior Quentin Soler (5-10, 140) and sophomore Brian Haddow (5-9, 150) rounding out the starting unit.

“I think we can throw to any of those guys and be confident,” Bush said. “They all have good hands and can run after the catch, too.”

  

At a Glance

Head coach: Steve Bush, seventh season (13th overall)

Career record: 108-74-1

2018 record: 2-8 (0-5 in Colonial Division)

Assistant coaches: Geoff Massimini (def. coord./LB/TE), Justin Bloss (OL/DL), Randy Kalman (special teams/WR/DB), Justin McGhee (RB/OLB), Larry McKnight (OL/DL), Danielle Kanski (athletic trainer).

Offense: Spread

Defense: 3-3 stack

 

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Nick Ferreira, Sr., QB

After sitting behind Sean Glenn for the last two seasons, Ferreira gets his shot at quarterbacking Middletown North’s spread offense. Glenn led the Shore Conference with 1,734 yards passing while tossing 14 touchdown passes this season.

 

X-FACTOR: Defense 

Middletown North’s defense was near the bottom of the Shore allowing 27.7 points per game last season. Injuries forced them to switch from a 4-2-5 to a 3-3 stack midway through last season, and the scheme worked well enough with their returning personnel that the Lions decided to stick with it for this season. They are strong up the middle with senior Andrew Kanski at defensive tackle, seniors Travis Thompson and Eddie Farrell at linebacker, and seniors Anthony Soto and Matt Spencer at safety.

 

IMPACT NEWCOMER: Nico Cerbo, Jr., OL/DE

Cerbo, who is a standout on Middletown North’s wrestling team, joins the football squad this year and is slated to be a two-way starter at left tackle and defensive end.

 

PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 27 at Freehold Township 

Middletown North opens the season with two tough nondivisional games against Long Branch and Wall before beginning its Constitution Division schedule. The Patriots have been a playoff team the last few seasons and figure to be a contender for the division title, so this Week 4 game should tell a lot about both teams.

 

Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at bob.badders@townsquaremedia.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.

 

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