By Jim Hintelmann
MIDDLETOWN – When Middleton South dropped its first two games of the season to Ocean Township (overtime) and Manalapan, the chances of making the NJSIAA playoffs for the 15th straight season appeared dim at best.
The Eagles, though, have turned things around and, thanks to a six-game winning streak, including Friday’s impressive 35-7 rout of Lacey, they drew the eighth seed, where they will play Northern Burlington in the opening round Friday.
South, however, needed some help to gain the playoff berth with either Neptune or Hamilton West having to lose Saturday in order for South to make it. Neptune won its game with Colts Neck, but South got their big break when Rancocas Valley topped Hamilton West.
“We finally got the lineup out there so that we could get back to the basics and do the things that we do well,” said South coach Steve Antonucci. “We’ve come a long way.”
Against a good Lacey team that went 12-0 last year, South, led by linebacker Joe Simone, put on a defensive clinic and held Lacey to no first downs in the first three quarters while not allowing the Lions past their own 43.
“The coaches are the reason (for the improvement),” said Simone. “My teammates are all coming together and we never felt that we were out of it. I’ve been playing with these guys all my life. We wanted this big time.”
“We scouted Lacey like we do every team,” said Antonucci. “They are a tough, physical team. This is the last home game for the seniors.”
The game started out slowly with both teams unable to move on their first two possessions, but the Eagles took control from there.
Starting on its third series, South went 80 yards in just five plays for its first touchdown, a 51-yard sprint by quarterback Howie Brey, who faked a handoff, kept the ball and raced down the left sideline for the score. Connor Ryan kicked the first of five extra points. That was just the beginning with South shoving across three more touchdowns in the second quarter to break open the game.
Tim McArdle, who recently returned from a neck injury several games ago, scored the second touchdown on a 6-yard run to finish off a 70-yard drive in eight plays.
“I got a herniated disk in my neck in the Manalapan game,” said McArdle, who rushed for 78 yards. “It was an old injury from last year that came back this summer.
“I came back in the Brick Memorial game,” he said. “Jeremy Concepcion filled my spot and did a heck of a job against Freehold Township and Howell. I just couldn’t stand sitting on the sideline.”
A poor Lacey punt into a strong wind bounced near the line of scrimmage and rolled backward to give South the ball on the Lions’ 22 and Jake Ripnick took it over on the next play for a 21-0 lead.
South made it 28-0 just before halftime on a 1-yard keeper by Brey after Ripnick set it up with a 55-yard run to the 6.
South closed out the scoring on its first series of the second half with McArdle scoring on a 3-yard run to cap a 50-yard drive.
Lacey finally got its initial first down with eight minutes left and went on to score on Jake Timony’s 4-yard run, but that was against the South second team.