The Replacements: Backups Step Up for Middletown South in Absence of Jake Czwakiel
HAZLET - When Middletown South senior star Jake Czwakiel went down with an ankle injury in the season opener that sidelined him for Thursday night's game against Raritan, it wasn't next man up for the Eagles.
It was next men up.
Czwakiel is a utility player dynamo who is Middletown South's starting quarterback, safety, kicker and punter. He is one of the best in the Shore at every single one of those positions, so it wasn't like losing one player in the lineup for the Eagles. It was like losing three or four.
His injury meant three players who weren't expected to see a ton of time this year suddenly became crucial. All three had their moments on Thursday night as the Eagles picked up their first win with a 19-0 nondivisional victory over the Rockets behind a monster performance from senior star Colin Gallagher.
Junior quarterback Jackson Harris, senior safety Jesse Burbank and junior kicker/punter Andrew Sonta all filled in with Czwakiel out of the lineup.
"I'm just kind of getting used to it, but just playing confident and not playing nervous out there," Harris said.
"It's been pretty easy," Burbank said. "My teammates have been helping me, and Jake's just been in my ear telling me about different plays."
The Eagles actually started the game with running back Donovan Summey at quarterback in the shotgun, but then he went down with an ankle injury of his own in the second quarter and didn't return.
That meant the team needed Harris to enter the game at quarterback with 6:43 left in the half and the Eagles leading 6-0. They stalled on their first drive, but then mounted a seven-play, 55-yard drive in which Harris went 4-for-4 passing for 34 yards before Gallagher scored on a 9-yard run.
"After the first successes, I started to do better and get in a rhythm," Harris said.
The Eagles didn't need Harris to be a world-beater slinging 50-yard bombs since their offensive line was getting a strong push and Gallagher was running wild on his way to a career-high 241 yards and three touchdowns. They just needed Harris to take care of the ball and make accurate throws on short routes, and he finished 7-for-8 for 42 yards and no turnovers.
"Just get the ball to our best players and get yards," Harris said.
"Jackson doesn't get rattled, that's one good thing about him," Middletown South coach Steve Antonucci said. "He'll get the job done. He's got some talent behind him, which helps make it a little bit easier for him. Right now, he's our guy and we're going to get behind him and try to make him better."
Sonta handled the kickoffs and the punting. Middletown South elected to go for 2-point conversions on their first two touchdowns after some struggles in the kicking game in Czwakiel's absence in a season-opening loss to Rumson-Fair Haven. However, they put Sonta out there after a third-quarter touchdown and he booted the extra point with ease.
"He actually did a good job in the end," Antonucci said. "We've got to trust him a little bit more."
Burbank stepped in at safety and was part of a dominant Eagles' defensive effort that limited Raritan to 16 total yards, including minus-6 yards rushing.
"The energy was a little down (after losing Czwakiel), but throughout the week we started stepping up and got confident," Burbank said.
The Eagles also endured a frightening moment in the second quarter when senior Kian Casey was injured in a collision on a kickoff and was put on a stretcher and taken in an ambulance to Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune for further evaluation.
He gave a thumbs-up to the crowd as he was being loaded into the ambulance. Casey had feeling in all his extremities when he was on the field, Antonucci said following the game.
"We had a moment of silence, said some prayers, and then we went out and shut 'em out," Harris said.
Antonucci said the loss of Czwakiel, who is game-to-game right now with the ankle injury, reminded him of losing star Michael Little to injury during the 1998 season when much of the offense revolved around him.
"It's never easy to see your teammate get hurt, especially somebody who's that valuable to you," Antonucci said. "And the gameplan that we had going into the Rumson game was all about Jake. It made it real hard to rebound and adjust, and that's our fault."
The Eagles are going to need Czwakiel and Summey back as soon as possible, as they take on Wall next week and then the No. 1 team in the SSN Shore 16, Toms River North. For now, Czwakiel's backups are doing their best to patch the hole.
"We're getting what we can out of these guys, and that's all we can ask for," Antonucci said. "We all know that it's just going to get harder."