By Ryan Fennell
Colts Neck – It’s all about hitting your stride and firing on all cylinders at the right time.
That phrase, and variations of it, has become nearly as commonplace as the phrase, “We’re taking it one game at a time.”
And, how true they are.
Over the course of the last year we’ve seen both mantras dominate the post game interviews and radio talk show commentaries on the professional level in three major sports. We saw it with the New York football Giants who made an improbable run through the playoffs to capture their second championship ring in four years. We saw it with the Los Angeles Kings who took an 8th seed ranking all the way to the Stanley Cup. And, most recently, we saw it with the San Francisco baseball Giants who barreled through opponents to a World Series title after being one game away from elimination.
Now, we are seeing it in our own backyard, as the Middletown South Eagles face off against Sayreville in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV Championship game at Rutgers University at 4 pm after limping into the playoffs as the seventh seed.
The Eagles are hitting their stride and firing on all cylinders at the right time.
After losing their final two regular season qualifying games to Red Bank Catholic, 34-7, and Colts Neck, 28-9, the Eagles have caught fire.
The loss to Colts Neck on Nov. 11 dropped the Eagles to the seventh seed in the Group IV playoffs, which meant they would have to travel to second-seeded West Windsor-Plainsboro South in the first round. That proved not to be a problem for the Eagles, handily defeating WW-PS, 40-8.
After a, 21-13, Thanksgiving Day win over crosstown rival Middletown North, the Eagles were back in Colts Neck for the semifinal of the playoffs. Colts Neck had earned the three seed after defeating Middletown South in their earlier matchup.
But, this was not the same team they were facing.
Middletown played arguably its best game of the season to date, dominating in all three phases for four quarters to win 45-35 and earn a place in the sectional final on Saturday.
“We challenged our kids this week to make it different and they made a difference all week,” Middletown South head coach Steve Antonucci said. “We wanted this bad as a team and as a group. Our biggest players stepped up to the biggest stage today and it was fun to watch.
“We had a good game plan going in,” he added. “We executed and that’s what we didn’t do the last time. We came out here today to play and play hard and play all four quarters.”
The Eagles offense was explosive last Saturday racking up nearly 600 yards in total offense. Junior quarterback Kyle Brey completed 21 of 28 passes for 302 yards and four touchdowns, two to senior wide receiver Anthony Citarella. On the day, Citarella had eight catches for 205 yards to go along with his two touchdowns.
Senior Elijah Smith was all over the field on offense and defense. Smith carried the ball 26 times for 240 yards and a touchdown.
“We knew we had to prove people wrong,” Smith said after the Colts Neck game. “We practiced hard this week to empty the tank. We knew it was now or nothing.
“Our seniors, we didn’t want to end with a loss and we wanted to make it to Rutgers,” he added. “We want to play (this) week and we all feel like in order to play (this) week we had to give it our all and I gave it my all. We had to represent and keep Midd South legacy in order.”
After rolling through the second and third seeds, Middletown South now faces off against the top seed in Sayreville, which is 11-0 on the season and is the two-time defending Group IV champion.
Sayreville has outscored its opponents, 359-63, on the season, holding opponents to under six points per game on average.
The Eagles will need to bring its dynamic offense to the table on Saturday to break that trend.