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Perfect ending for the perfect team

first_imgMiddletown South routs Shabazz to claim third straight title BY DOUG McKENZIE Staff Writer BY DOUG McKENZIEStaff Writer Above left, Trent MacCray puts a jarring hit on Shabazz’s Nahum Purdie during Sunday’s final in Piscataway. Above right, Middletown South’s Jeff Mercer celebrates his team’s third straight sectional title. There were 19 seniors on this season’s Middletown South football team. Of those 19 players, 18 never lost a varsity football game. The other senior, Knowshon Moreno, lost one game — a state championship game, in his freshman year. What more can be said to illustrate the dominance of this program over the last three seasons? Middletown South, the consensus No. 1-ranked team in the state throughout the season, cemented that status on Sunday with a 22-0 win over Newark’s Shabazz, securing the Eagles’ third straight state title and their 36th consecutive victory — a Shore Conference record. When it was over, the magnitude of what this group of players has accomplished began to sink in with the players, their fans, and as mush as anyone else, their coaching staff — a colorful, hardworking group of football junkies who shed their tough-guy exteriors following the win on Sunday, and were obviously emotional as they celebrated on the field at Rutgers Stadium. PHOTOS BY JEFF GRANIT staff “I’m so proud of this moment,” said head coach Steve Antonucci, whose 80-12 career mark and three state titles are now the foundation to what is quickly becoming a legendary coaching career at South. “These kids, this senior group that came here three years ago, this is the best way for them to go out. They gave everything they can to this football program, and we’re here today because of them. “There are not enough words to describe them,” the proud coach added. “When you think about the guys who have been leading this club, like Knowshon, [Nick] Macaluso, Trent MacCray, Matt Walsh, these guys have put this program in a whole other atmosphere.” As remarkable as the Eagles’ three-year run has been, it has not taken Antonucci completely by surprise. “It’s very special to be a two-time No. 1 team in the state of New Jersey,” he said. “We talked about this at some point in time when these kids we here, but for it to actually come true, it’s unbelievable.” RICH GRAESSLE South’s Knowshon Moreno fights off Shabazz’s Samuel Johnson during one of his many runs on Sunday. “I can’t ask for anything more. To win three in a row, three-peat, and to win every game as a varsity player — I’m the happiest man in the world right now,” said Macaluso, the leader of the Eagles’ brilliant defense, whose punishing play from his linebacker position resembles what Adam Sandler’s character in the movie Waterboy did to opposing offenses. “It’s just 11 men to the ball, keep pursuit and hunt them down,” he added, describing the Eagles’ defensive philosophy. “To go out in our last game and get a shutout is the greatest thing in the world — the icing on the cake.” That defense allowed the Eagles to escape a mistake-prone first half in a 0-0 tie on Sunday. While the Eagles were riding the running of Moreno, who rushed for over 100 yards in the first half, four Eagle fumbles (including three by Moreno) continually gave Shabazz scoring chances in Eagle territory. But each time, the South defense stepped up and shut the Bulldogs down. Above, South’s Trent MacCray strips Shabazz’s quarterback Jamil Phelps, leading to the first score of the game, a safety. Below, Mark Longo makes the catch for a touchdown. On Shabazz’s first possession, the Bulldogs used a 61-yard pass play to reach the Eagle 12-yard line. However, on a fourth-and-one from the Eagle 2-yard line, Shabazz quarterback Jamil Phelps was sacked for a 10-yard loss, giving the ball back to the Eagles. Following Moreno’s first fumble, the Bulldogs regained possession at the South 35-yard line, and advanced all the way to the South 5-yard line before a sack by Macaluso, a 3-yard gain on an option play and an incomplete pass led to a fourth-and-14 from the Eagle 14. Shabazz then tried a fake field goal, but the play was whistled dead on a false start. That led to a fourth-and-19, and the Eagle defense was able to end the threat once again with an interception by senior David Dosil. PHOTOS BY JEFFGRANIT staff The game remained deadlocked for the rest of the half, as South’s defense continued to exert its dominance, while the Eagle offense continued to shoot itself in the foot with turnovers. Heading into the break, there was a sense of uneasiness spreading among the Eagle faithful. But did the players and coaches share their concern? “Not too much,” said Antonucci. “We were moving the football, but we turned the ball over. I thought we had some things going; we just weren’t in synch yet. “We were calm,” he added. “For the most part, I just told them to hang on to the football. We were playing great defense, and that’s been our MO — that and run the football. We weren’t real concerned about them scoring, we were more concerned about us putting points on the board.” And the coach added some reassuring words for Moreno. “I just told him to calm down,” Antonucci said. “I thought he was little over-amped up. He was trying a little harder than usual, but I kind of knew that [would happen] coming in. Emotions take over. But when you’ve been through a run like this, and had a career like he’s had, I think he came in here today thinking that he had to do everything to win the game, and he didn’t have to.” The second half was a whole new ballgame. While the Eagle defense continued to dominate — even putting the first points on the board with a safety on a quarterback sack by MacCray — the offense began to click by opening up the passing game a bit. With Shabazz putting eight and sometimes nine players at the line in an attempt to slow Moreno, the Eagles took advantage by burning the Bulldog defensive backs, who were stuck in man-to-man coverage. After junior Dayon Lane returned an interception to the South 46, South needed just six plays to get in the end zone. After Moreno busted loose for a 24-yard gain, senior quarterback Walsh hit senior Mark Longo with an 18-yard scoring strike. With Sean Kirk’s PAT (point after touchdown), South was up 9-0. Following a botched Shabazz punt near the start of the fourth quarter, which gave the Eagles the ball at the Shabazz 34, South added to its lead when Walsh lofted a pass to Moreno, who made a beautiful over-the-shoulder catch to make it 15-0. South’s final touchdown came on their next possession when Walsh hit Dosil with an 8-yard pass with 2:37 left in the game. One the final whistle sounded, the Eagle players and coaches all recognized the efforts of the defensive unit. “I can’t say enough about them,” Antonucci said. “They run around, they’re aggressive. They’re the best defense around, no doubt about it. Coach [Al] Bigos deserves this as much as anybody.” “Trent MacCray got that safety for us that set everything straight and we just moved up from there,” Moreno added. “We just knew to keep our heads up, have the offense get a score and the defense will take care of the rest.” And they certainly did, as the Eagles put an exclamation point on a brilliant three-year run, staking their claim as the top team in the state. “What we’ve done the last three years is great,” Macaluso said. “We’ve earned it with all the hard work we put in.” Even Antonucci, who has dodged questions all season regarding the No. 1 ranking, was a bit more pronounced following Sunday’s game. “Most people dream about days like today. And not many teams can complete a mission like this,” Antonucci said. “I don’t think there’s anybody betterlast_img read more