New Faces, Same Standards: 2018 Middletown South Football Preview
Circumstances never dictate the terms at Middletown South. It doesn’t matter if the roster is stocked with established performers boasting decorated resumes or heavily comprised of unproven newcomers. The harsh reality is, due to the combination of rich tradition and accountability to high standards, the Eagles are annually weighted with lofty expectations. Overlooking if they are even justifiable never factors into the equation.
Pride is not something taken lightly around The Swamp. In fact, it’s the principle upon which the respected program has been built upon. While the 2018 crew may seem short on recognizable commodities, it will be longing to uphold everything that’s made Middletown South one of the most revered gridiron gangs in the Garden State, and, maybe – just maybe – spring a few surprises along the way.
The Eagles are in unfamiliar territory by most accounts, somewhat of a mystery due to a lack of marquee names. Yet, to yawn at the prospects of a resurgence from last year’s 5-5 performance would be exactly the trap they’d like to set as they prime for their march toward a return to prominence.
“There are a lot of unknowns,” conceded head coach Steve Antonucci, set to embark on his 21st season piloting the Eagles. “We are in an area where I think we’re going to be pretty good, I just don’t know how good? We don’t necessarily have one kid that, when you look at him, you’re going to say ‘Wow’, but we have seven or eight kids that can do some things. They’re athletic enough to make plays. We can be that pain to a lot of people that if you allow us to stay in games and get momentum, we can pose trouble.”
Thus, opponents have been properly alerted. Expect the unexpected from Middletown South, especially on the offensive side, where redesigns are being implemented to suit personnel with a hint toward the distant past.
South, which had recently employed the pistol spread out of the no-huddle, will be going under center more frequently, with multiple schemes, including the triple-option. Although the skills components include a couple of new faces, those entrusted to open lanes and create a pocket across the offensive line are fortified by game-day wisdom and cemented chemistry.
Junior left tackle Tom Mielnikiewicz, senior right guard Brady Smith, senior left guard Joe Dellavalle, junior center T.J. Latore and junior right tackle Nick Bonafiglio were all in the rotation last fall with sophomores Joe Stanzione, Brendan Bigos and Ian Rahill challenging for snaps while adding depth to the unit along the line of scrimmage.
Multi-talented Matt Tardy, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound senior, will reside at tight end but is athletic, impactful and flexible enough to be a resource explored as a fullback or H-back when necessary.
The Eagles have the utmost faith in senior James Petrillo to set the tone of the running game. His hauls may have been limited as a junior (19 carries for 132 yards, one TD) working behind Chaz Alessi and Jake Krellin but his confidence is immeasurable.
“He plays with a chip on his shoulder,” noted Antonucci of the elusive 5-7, 155-pounder. “He loves the game, runs around and has a good time. With the ball in his hands, he can be dangerous.”
Classmates Chris Fleming and Kenny McCarthy, the younger brother of former South standout James McCarthy, will also compete for carries at tailback while seniors Gavin Goldbaum and Dylan Walling, along with junior Vinny Condito, aim to blaze paths interchanging at fullback.
Who engineers the offense could boil down to either senior Trevor Brey or junior Tyler Cuccia. Brey has the upper hand in one regard, getting a couple of appearances at quarterback last season, He’s fully acquainted with nuances of the position having watched older brothers Howie and Kyle run the Middletown South offense.
“I don’t know if you can go wrong either way,” Antonucci said of his selections at quarterback. “Each one of them does something a little bit better than the other. We’ll see how they react in the scrimmages and go from there.”
When the Eagles seek to look downfield, the receiving corps of juniors Connor Ard, Matt Krellin and Oscar Cruz, along with sophomore Luke Albrecht, figure to be among those targeted at wide receiver.
The kicking game falls upon the reliable foot of senior Chris Kaldrovics, who has handled the chore since he was a sophomore.
Middletown South plans to stick with its 3-4 look on defense and with good reason. It must compensate for the graduation of game-changing edge force Jake Krellin (84 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, 11 sacks) and will go about addressing the issue with Condito, Goldbaum and Rahill bonding within the odd-man front. Condito has the most extensive portfolio, a rugged run stuffer on the nose while Rahill and Goldbaum will bring explosiveness from the periphery.
How well they engage and occupy blockers will be the key that opens lanes for a quick and hard-hitting group of linebackers, inspired by Tardy. The instincts he honed working the outside should make a seamless transition inside, teamed with Walling, while McCarthy and Krellin man the outside posts.
Krellin, who looks to emerge from the shadow of his older brother, Jake, a First-Team Shore Sports Network All-Shore selection, supplies versatility within the role. He'll shift from cornerback where he displayed his adhesive coverage technique on Thanksgiving with three interceptions during a 21-7 victory over crosstown rival Middletown North.
“Matt moving from corner gives us the best chance against the spread teams,” said Antonucci. “He gives us an athlete in space who can run and cover people.”
Junior Chris Lotito, who accumulated three interceptions as a sophomore, and Cuccia are ticketed to handle responsibilities at cornerback with Petrillo, Albrecht and senior Dennis Brown looming in the safety spots.
The Shore Conference realignment placed Middletown South in the American Division, where it will get reacquainted with Manalapan, Freehold Township and Howell, old adversaries from its Class A North days. It will also face Central and Toms River North within the American, the latter a familiar foe it’s seen as a nondivisional opponent for the past two years, earning a split of the series.
A promising sophomore class could suggest South is a year away from being among the conference’s elite, yet Antonucci doesn’t see any reason why the Eagles don’t have the capability to arrive ahead of schedule.
“By no means is this a team that I can put a number of wins on,” Antonucci said. “It’s different than other years when we knew we’d be a top-tier team. Right now, I don’t know if we are a top-tier team. Do we have the potential to be one? Sure. We’re not one, two or three in the Shore but we could crack the Top 10 and stay in there. We have to be a team that’s consistent every week.
“There’s a lot of kids that, when you look at them, they bring little pieces of the game and when they put them all together, then we’re going to be pretty good. I fully expect to be better than 5-5. That’s not good enough for this team. Are we two games better? Three games better? I don’t know. We’re definitely an all-around better team than we were a year ago. I like our sophomore class. I think we’re a year away from being pretty significant.”
Time will tell.
At a Glance
Head coach: Steve Antonucci, 21st season
Career record: 182-46
2017 record: 5-5 (4-2)
Coaching staff: Al Bigos (def. coord/asst. head coach); Nick Trezza (OL/DL), Steve Roberts (special teams/LB/WR); Jeff Martin (RB); Joe Trezza (DB); Rod Murchie, Tom Nichols; Tom Sherwood. John Kline (freshmen); Stacy White (athletic trainer).
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Matt Tardy, Sr. ILB/TE
Tardy has been meticulously groomed to be the heir apparent to Jake Krellin, a playmaker on both sides of the ball with a ceaseless engine and physical prowess. Beyond what kind of impact he makes in his dual roles, Tardy’s foremost assignment will be to abide by his exemplary work ethic, one to emulate.
X-FACTOR: Matt Krellin, Jr. OLB/WR
This dude could qualify for Big Shoes to Fill as well considering the burden of comparisons made to his older brother Jake, a 2018 graduate now at Rowan University. But, make no mistake, Matt is his own man, carving a niche for himself as a guy with a nose for the ball on defense and reliable hands who can burn a secondary within the Eagles’ passing game.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Quarterback
Let’s face it, the position is extremely vital to the offensive operation. South has a pair of qualified candidates competing for the spot in senior Trevor Brey, who shares a number of qualities with his older brothers Kyle and Howie, both former Eagle QBs, and junior Tyler Cuccia, (6-1, 170) is athletic and built for making plays.
PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 14 at Manalapan
The two sides haven’t met since they were Class A North residents in 2015. While Middletown South claimed the last encounter, 42-7, en route to a 12-0 mark and the North Jersey, Section 2, Group 4 title in ‘15, that win snapped a string of five consecutive losses against the Braves. Intensity is generally off the charts when these two collide. This year should be no different.