Lions’ Pride: 2022 Middletown North High School Football Preview
The 2021 season for Middletown North's football team can be summed up by drawing a line right through the middle of the schedule.
The first half of last season saw the Lions race out to a 5-1 record and earn a share of the Independence Division title. The second half of the season was not as kind. Middletown North stumbled down the stretch to lose its final five games of the season and finish with a 5-6 record, the Lions' fourth straight season with a sub-.500 record. However, three of those five losses came to teams ranked in the Shore Sports Network Top 10, and another was to Sayreville in the playoffs.
On the surface, those statistics could make it seem as if the season was a disappointment. Not so. Despite the tough finish to the season, the Lions took a step forward to returning to consistent title contention. The challenge this season will be to continue trending toward the program's first winning season since 2016 while integrating new starters at critical positions.
Middletown North graduated several standouts, many of whom were multi-year starters - quarterback Tommy Giannone, running back/safety Brian Haddow, wide receivers Levi Wilson and Lucas Cerbo, tight end Zac Searight, linebacker Colin Devine, and linemen Adam Conklin and Connor Clark. Five starters return in the Lions' spread offense and seven return in their 3-3 stack defense, so an experienced core is in place to lead the way.
Middletown North's leader is senior two-way lineman Jack Lopez. A starter since his freshman year, Lopez is a returning SSN Second Team All-Shore selection who was voted the co-Defensive Player of the Year in the Independence Division. He recorded 63 total tackles with 21 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 20 hurries from his spot at defensive end. The 6-foot-5, 270-pound bookend, who is also a returning starter at left tackle, is committed to Harvard.
"I think it all starts in the weight room and training in the offseason," Lopez said. "We got a bunch of guys together during the offseason to do speed training and tried to get together as much as possible. I think we really emphasized everybody needs to be working to get better."
Lopez leads the way up front for what should be a strong defensive line. Both senior defensive end Peter Dempsey and senior defensive tackle Lucas Ainbinder are returning starters with senior Christian Cueto also in the mix at defensive tackle. Junior Justin Soto returns at inside linebacker after recording 73 tackles last season. He will be flanked by senior outside linebacker Michael Subik, a returning starter, and junior James Barnao. Junior Brian Dunleavy will also be working at outside linebacker.
The secondary is led by a pair of returning starters with Derek Soto at free safety and Jack LaBruno at strong safety. The cornerbacks on one side are senior Mykal Callender and junior Dylan Briggs and on the other side are senior Ryan Kane and junior Richie Welton. The rover position will be manned by senior Richie Grabowski. Last season, the Lions were a top-15 scoring defense in the Shore Conference at 18.4 points per game.
A high-scoring and exciting spread offense has been the signature for Middletown North under head coach Steve Bush. The quarterback position is obviously integral to the success of that type of offense and this season the Lions will be breaking in a new one after two years under the direction of Tommy Giannone. Junior Lucas Sheehan takes the reins of the Middletown North offense and will try to be the latest Lions' quarterback to be among the Shore's top passers. His top target will likely be Derek Soto, who caught 26 passes for 404 yards and two touchdowns last season. Juniors Dylan Briggs, Brian Dunleavy, and Ka'ley Spearman along with senior Jack LaBruno comprise the rest of the wide receiver group.
Lining up alongside Sheehan in the backfield will be junior running back James Barnao and Spearman, the latter of whom will be used in a utility role between running back and receiver. Both have big shoes to fill after the graduation of Brian Haddow, who was a three-year starter and a First Team All-Shore selection last season. Tight end is another position where the Lions will need to replace a standout. Dempsey slides in as the starting tight end after the graduation of Second Team All-Shore selection Zac Searight.
Lopez and Ainbinder anchor the offensive line from their positions at left tackle and right guard, respectively. The left guard is junior Giovanni Antonucci, the center is sophomore Andrew Klimovich, and the right tackle spot has junior Thomas Randolph and senior Ryan Koenig competing for the starting spot.
On special teams, junior Ian Poole-Morgan returns as the kicker after connecting on 20 extra points and three field goals last season.
After competing in the Independence Division last season with Lacey, Brick, Brick Memorial, and Howell, Middletown North will now contend in the Colonial Division with Central Regional, Lacey, Long Branch, Southern Regional, and Toms River North.
"I keep telling myself every day that this year is going to be different," Lopez said. "It sounds clichè but I'm telling myself every snap this year is going to be personal. I really want to make my mark at North."
At a Glance
Projected starters (RS=returning starter, 3RS=3rd-year returning starter, 4RS=4th-year returning starter)
Returning starters: 5
QB: Lucas Sheehan, Jr.
RB: James Barnao, Jr.; Ka'ley Spearman, Jr.
WR: Derek Soto, Sr., RS; Dylan Briggs, Jr.; Brian Dunleavy, Jr.; Jack LaBruno, Sr.; Ka'ley Spearman, Jr.
TE: Peter Dempsey, Sr.
LT: Jack Lopez, Sr., 4RS
LG: Giovanni Antonucci, Jr.
C: Andrew Klimovich, So.
RG: Lucas Ainbinder, Sr.
RT: Thomas Randolph, Jr.; Ryan Koenig, Sr.
Defense: 3-3 stack
Returning starters: 7
DE: Jack Lopez, Sr., 4RS
DT: Lucas Ainbinder, Sr., RS; Christian Cueto, Sr.
DE: Peter Dempsey, Sr., RS
OLB: Michael Subik, Sr., RS
ILB: Justin Soto, Jr., RS
OLB: Jams Barnao, Jr.; Brian Dunleavy, Jr.
CB: Mykal Callender, Sr.; Dylan Briggs, Jr.
CB: Ryan Kane, Sr.; Richie Welton, Jr.
SS: Jack LaBruno, Sr., RS
FS: Derek Soto, Sr., RS
Rover: Richie Grabowski, Sr.
K: Ian Poole-Morgan, Jr., RS
Head coach: Steve Bush, 10th season (16th overall)
Career record: 42-49 (124-97-1 overall)
Team record last five years:
Assistant coaches: Geoff Massimini (Defensive Coordinator/LB/TE); Fred Stengel (OL/DL); Justin McGhee (DL/OL/Head JV coach); Connor Welsh (RB/SS); Donald Glenn WR/DB); Larry McKnight (OL/DL); Danielle Kanski (Athletic Trainer).
Player to Watch: Jack Lopez, Sr., OL/DL
An imposing force in the trenches, especially at defensive end, the 6-foot-5, 270-pound Lopez is a Harvard recruit who was an SSN Second Team All-Shore selection last season.
Player Under the Radar: Derek Soto, Sr., WR/FS
Soto caught 26 passes for 404 yards and two touchdowns last season and enters the season as the No. 1 offensive option for the Lions and new quarterback Lucas Sheehan. He'll also return as a starter in the secondary.
Impact Newcomer: Lucas Sheehan, Jr., QB
Sheehan takes over as Middletown North's quarterback after the graduation of two-year starter Tommy Giannone.
Top Position Group: Defensive line
With Jack Lopez and Peter Dempsey at defensive end and Lucas Ainbinder at defensive tackle, the Lions have three senior returning starters up front in their 3-3 stack defense.
Big Shoes to Fill: James Barnao, Jr., RB
Barnao steps in as the Lions' running back after the graduation of First Team All-Shore running back Brian Haddow.
Rivalry Game: Thanksgiving vs. Middletown South
This matchup speaks for itself. Middletown takes its football seriously and the annual Turkey Day game between the Lions and the Eagles is always a season highlight regardless of either team's record.
Sept. 2 - vs. Manalapan, 6 p.m.
Sept. 9 - @Central, 7 p.m.
Sept. 16 - @Lacey, 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 23 - vs. Southern, 7 p.m.
Oct. 7 - vs. Long Branch, 7 p.m.
Oct. 14 - @Ocean, 7 p.m.
Oct. 21 - vs. Toms River North, 7 p.m.
Nov. 24 - @Middletown South, 10:30 a.m.