Pure Greatness: Middletown South’s Steve Antonucci reaches 200 career wins
MIDDLETOWN — Stoic yet fiery most of the time, Steve Antonucci allowed himself to get a bit choked up during his postgame speech on Friday night.
For as much as he has meant to the Middletown South football program over the last quarter-century, he wanted to convey just how much the program means to him.
“I’ve been blessed with great people, a great staff, great players. When we put that ’S’ on the side of our helmets, we put on that jersey, we come down the hill at The Swamp, it’s the greatest place in the world. I can’t thank you guys enough, thank the staff enough, former players, every Eagle everywhere.”
With Middletown South’s 27-0 victory over Jackson Memorial on Friday night at The Swamp, Antonucci’s legendary coaching career reached another milestone: 200 career wins. And it was done in classic Middletown South fashion. The Eagles’ defense was dominant and fearsome and the offense pounded Jackson on the ground with over 200 yards rushing.
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Antonucci is the ninth coach in Shore Conference history to reach 200 career victories and just the seventh to reach 200 wins entirely within the Shore Conference. His tenure on Nut Swamp Road has been marked with consistency, class, pride and a whole lot of winning. To reach 200 wins is one thing, to do it with an incredible winning percentage of 77 percent is another. He is 200-59 in now his 24th season as Middletown South’s head coach, averaging an outstanding 8.5 wins per season.
Not bad for a “baseball guy”.
Antonucci vividly recalled his first game as Eagles’ head coach, a 1998 road game at Freehold Township where they lost standout player Michael Little to an injury. Middletown South was ranked No. 4 in the state to start the season, finished with a 9-3 mark and reached the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group 3 championship game where they fell to one of John Amabile’s powerhouse Neptune teams.
That was the start of a Hall of Fame career that has never shown signs of slowing down. Antonucci has led Middletown South to six NJSIAA sectional titles, which is tied with Brick’s Warren Wolf and Keyport’s Mike Ciccotelli (Antonucci’s high school coach) for second all-time in Shore Conference history behind the 11 won by Vic Kubu at Manasquan and Middletown North. Middletown South won four straight state titles from 2003-2006 and during that stretch authored a Shore Conference record 43-game winning streak. Five of his teams have finished 12-0, most recently the 2015 team that finished ranked No. 1 in New Jersey.
Throughout his tenure, Antonucci’s right-hand man has been defensive coordinator Al Bigos. The Eagles’ identity has been and continues to be an aggressive and ferocious defense like the one we saw on Friday night. In their 259 games together, Middletown South has allowed 14 points or less an astonishing 178 times with 58 shutouts.
Antonucci is just the fifth head coach in Middletown South history since the program’s first varsity season in 1976. The Eagles had already won four state titles under John Andl (1989), Bob Generelli (1990, 1992) and Keith Comeforo (1995) before Antonucci was named the head coach after Comeforo’s second tenure came to an end. He already had a state title under his belt as Middletown South’s head baseball coach, but he wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms by everybody in the football community.”
“You have to remember, when I got this job everybody said I was just a baseball guy,” Antonucci said. “There are a lot of people who weren’t too happy about it, but that was just a chip for me, something to put in my back pocket and just keep fighting for.”
“Bob Generell, John Andl, Keith Comeforo, Rich Mosca; there’s only been five coaches here and I’m the fifth guy, so it was a challenge to me, again as a guy who everyone thought was going to be a baseball guy coaching football. The chip was on my shoulder and it was a challenge I relished. I wanted to make this program even better than it was. Those guys did a tremendous job and I wanted to take it to another level.”
Middletown South went 7-3 in both 1999 and 2000, claiming division titles in each season. He was able to erase any doubts in 2001 when the Eagles went 12-0 and won the Central Jersey Group 3 title with standouts like quarterback Brendan Kennedy, offensive lineman Tom Mauro, defensive lineman Christian Thomas, and defensive back Mike McClelland leading the way.
The following season, the program welcomed what would become a legendary 2006 class that included one of New Jersey’s all-time greats: running back Knowshon Moreno. The Eagles went 9-3 during Moreno’s freshman year with a loss to Wall in the Central Jersey Group 3 title game, but that was the last time anybody would hang a loss on Middletown South for the next three and half years.
Moreno led the offense and All-State linebacker Nick Macaluso starred on a 2003 team that went 12-0, avenged the loss to Wall with a 13-0 victory in the first round of the playoffs, and ultimately defeated Red Bank, 24-14, in the sectional final. They steamrolled nearly every opponent in 2004 but needed to win a pair of slugfests against Wall, 28-27 in the regular season and 14-0 in the sectional title game, to once again finish 12-0. The sendoff for Moreno, Macaluso, and co. was another 12-0 season in 2005 in which they beat every team by at least three touchdowns.
Moreno moved on to the University of Georgia where he had an incredible career and was later selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. Macaluso went on to play at Stanford. Less heralded but nonetheless important standouts like quarterback Matt Walsh, ferocious linebacker Keith Heaney, future Rutgers lineman Howie Barbieri, defensive back Eric Daneman, defensive lineman Andrew Paulson, and running back/linebacker Trent McCray also graduated. There had to have been a sigh of relief from the teams Middletown South had bulldozed the past three seasons, but the Eagles’ run wasn’t over yet.
The 2006 season may be the most important in Middletown South history. Gone was a once-in-a-generation senior class that took the program to new heights. The Eagles started the 2006 season 7-0 before Ocean shocked them at The Swamp, 19-14 in the final week of the regular season, to end their 43-game winning streak. It could have been the end of an era, but instead, it was just a speed bump. Middletown South and players like Dave Dosil, Dayon Lane, Alec Bey, Pat Campbell and Sean Gilbert regrouped with blowout wins over Hightstown and Monmouth Regional in the first two rounds of the playoffs, shut out Middletown North on Thanksgiving, and then crushed Moorestown, 38-0, to win their fourth state title in a row.
“That showed that we built it the right way,” Antonucci said. “We built it from the bottom up, built it to last whether I’m here or not. This is a program people respect and also a program that people build their program to be like.”
That last part is absolutely the truth. Middletown South is a model program, like Brick, Manasquan, and others before it.
In 2000 and 2001, Jackson Memorial went 12-0 in consecutive seasons and finished No. 1 and No. 2 in the state. Current Rutgers wrestling head coach Scott Goodale was a football assistant on those Jackson teams and on Twitter recently commented about facing Middletown South in a scrimmage.
“(Steve Antonucci) is top of the line. Happy to see him still doing it at a high level. Will never take for granted the preparation I had to go through for just a scrimmage during the Midd. South/Jackson days. Coach doesn’t know this but he helped change the direction of Jag football.”
Middletown South reached state championship games in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, and 2014 but finished just short of the program’s 10th sectional title. Then came the 2015 season when twin brothers Cole and Dylan Rodgers along with quarterback/kicker Matt Mosquera, linebackers James McCarthy and Kevin Higgins, safety Maxx Imsho, defensive back Tom Coffey, defensive linemen Will Gulick and Jake Krellin, and several other standouts led the Eagles to a 12-0 season that culminated with a 35-7 win over Phillipsburg in the North 2, Group 4 title game. No team even sniffed a victory against the Eagles that season and they finished No. 1 in the state with Antonucci earning Shore Sports Network Coach of the Year honors.
The thrill of game day at The Swamp and the prospect of putting together special seasons like those keep Antonucci as engaged as ever.
“The Swamp is a great place,” Antonucci said. “I tell people all the time, one of the greatest traditions we have is when we run down that hill, Hell’s Bells playing. I’m 51 and I get goosebumps when we do it every Friday night. There’s something magical about it.”
Elementary and middle school kids line the hill as the high school team makes its entrance, many of them dreaming of the day when they too will get a chance to don the block ’S’ and become a part of Middletown South football. Jack Latore and Dan Primiano were those kids once. Now they are seniors and leading the way for a 3-0 Eagles team. Primiano ran for a career-high 192 yards and two touchdowns in the win over Jackson and Latore continued his great start to the season with two more sacks.
“It’s super special for me,” Latore said. “In my family alone it’s a tradition. My father played here in the early 90s, my brother played here, and now now I get to be part of the tradition just like them. I think Nooch is the best coach in New Jersey history, so it’s an honor to be part of his team and to be coached by him.”
“Middletown South football is unlike anything else,” Primiano said. “The tradition goes back so many years. Standing on that hill, I get chills every time. It’s something you don’t get anywhere else.”
Of course, Antonucci didn’t talk about his personal milestone during the week. It was all about getting to 3-0, but his players knew the stakes. At the end of their practice on Wednesday, the defensive linemen broke their huddle with a clap and ‘200’ in unison.
“He is selfless,” Latore said. “He didn’t care about 200. He cared about 3-0.”
“But we knew what it meant to him coming into this game,” Primiano said. “We worked hard in practice and it feels great to be a part of it.”
Twenty-three years plus three games, 200 wins, six state titles, 11 division championships. Steve Antonucci’s resume would be more than complete if he never coached another game, but there are certainly more chapters yet to write in his incredible football biography.