New Era: No. 6 Middletown South continues ascent with victory over No. 8 Howell
MIDDLETOWN – Just three years ago, Middletown South was a middling program trying to forge an identity and make inroads in the Shore Conference. A lot has changed since 2016.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Eagles, ranked No. 6 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10, scored a 13-5 Shore Conference Class A North victory over No. 8 Howell to take a significant step toward repeating as the public division champions.
Christian Brothers Academy has ruled Class A North since its inception in boys lacrosse and the battle for public-school supremacy has largely been between Howell, Freehold Township and Colts Neck. Middletown South crashed the party last season in finishing 15-4 and beating both Freehold Township and Howell, and Wednesday’s victory over the Rebels made it two years in a row they defeated both of the longtime public frontrunners in the division.
“It’s been a lot of work,” said senior midfielder Matt Tardy. “Coach Grella came in and changed the mindset. Instead of trying to be the best lacrosse players we try to be the hardest workers on the field. That’s what’s the difference in these games. This was a big game for us, and we just came out and worked.”
Tardy led the way with three goals and three assists while sophomore midfielder Jason Allen also scored three times and juniors Connor Ard and Carter Lenhard each scored twice. The Eagles (9-2, 4-1) led 4-1 after the first quarter, 6-2 at halftime and 10-3 heading into the fourth quarter. It was a thorough and complete win from start to finish.
Rob Grella was hired as Middletown South’s head coach prior to the 2016 season, and he brought with him an impressive resume that included leading the Adelphi University women’s lacrosse team to the 2014 NCAA Division 2 national championship. Grella, a Long Island native, was a former standout himself at Adelphi where he was a two-time NCAA All-American. He came to Middletown with a clear vision of what he wanted the Eagles to be defined by.
“What I try to instill in the guys is 'fight',” Grella said. “Forget about scoring, about anything else, and just fight for those ground balls, play hard and keep your composure.”
The Eagles’ physical brand of play was on full display against Howell. They were running through checks on the offensive end, muscling opposing ball carriers out of bounds and forcing turnovers in their close defensive set.
“Being physical all over the field is what we focus on,” Tardy said. “Getting ground balls, swarming on defense, being all over their hands.”
Ard is Middletown South’s leading scorer with 33 goals and 14 assists for 47 points, but Tardy is the engine that makes it all go. This past fall, Tardy was a First Team All-Shore football selection as a standout linebacker. He brings that same mentality to the lacrosse field.
“Coach Grella always tells me before games that I’m one of the biggest and fastest kids on the field, and that combination is deadly in lacrosse,” Tardy said. “I just try to use my body and get open.”
“He’s the heart and soul and gets us going,” Grella said. “He lowers his shoulder and plays, just like I was taught growing up on Long Island. He’s our leader and our go-to guy. When things get tough, he’s always there.”
Grella has also stressed the importance of seeking out the best competition and embracing the challenge. Middletown South had an opportunity to pick up a game with top-ranked and undefeated Manasquan last Saturday, and the decision was a no-brainer.
“I came into the locker room and said, ‘do you want to be 9-1 or do you want a shot at the best team out there?’,” Grella said.
The result was predictable, a 14-0 loss to the No. 6 team in New Jersey, but the Eagles gained more in defeat than they would have by picking up a win over a lesser team.
“Those are the things you need to do to prepare yourself for games like Howell, games like Freehold, because it makes you mentally and physically tougher,” Grella said. “You see the game played at such a high level and you take a little bit from it.”
Middletown South hosts Marlboro on Saturday before a pair of nondivisional games against Southern Regional and Toms River North next week. Then it’s onto what should be a very competitive Shore Conference Tournament.
“We have some tough competition coming up and hopefully we can keep it going,” Grella said. “I’m just trying to get the best out of the kids.”
No. 6 Middletown South 13, No. 8 Howell 5
|Howell (7-4, 4-2)||1||1||1||2||5|
|Middletown South (9-2, 4-1)||4||2||4||3||13|
GOALS – H: James Fay 2, Vaughn Meehan, Anthony Cinelli, Jared Badillo; MS: Matt Tardy 3, Jason Allen 3, Connor Ard 2, Carter Lenhard 2, Chris Lucyk, James Mayerhofer, Tyler Wishniewski.
ASSISTS – H: Logan Dennison 2, James Fay 2; MS: Matt Tardy 3, Chris Lucyk, Tyler Colacichi.
SAVES – H: Jared Jablonski 8; MS: Shane Murphy 7.
SHOTS: Middletown South, 30-18.
Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.