MIDDLETOWN – This year’s seniors were in eighth grade the last time Middletown North football posted a winning record back in 2016.
The 2016 team, led by quarterback Donald Glenn, who passed 7,540 career yards – No.1 in the Shore Conference, went 9-3 and advanced to the NJSIAA North 2, Group IV final before losing to Sayreville 41-14. In that game, the Lions held a 14-7 lead at intermission, but five second-half turnovers doomed them.
Middletown North last won a sectional title in 1996 when they captured the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV championship.
That 2016 team also defeated cross-town rival Middletown South, 24-6, for its first win against the Eagles in 16 years.
In 2017 the Lions slipped to 5-5. Then, from 2018 through 2020 they combined to win just seven games while losing 20 the next three seasons.
A year ago, in the Covid-shortened season, the Lions won just one game and lost five, however, their 2020 record wasn’t indicative of how they actually performed. They played a brutal schedule, with four of their five loses coming against teams ranked in the Shore Conference final Top 10.
“Going into our last game of the season last year, the overall records of the teams we had played was 29-1,” said North head coach Steve Bush. “The guys learned from playing against really good competition and it made them better, so I think that helped us this year.”
In their final game of the 2020 season, Freehold – ranked seventh in the Shore Conference – beat the Lions on a last-second field goal.
“That game really was a wakeup call that we can be a contender for a top 10 team,” said Lions starting quarterback Tommy Giannone. “And not only that, but also losing in the final seconds really made us carry an attitude into the offseason that we wanted to strive to be better next season.
“The offseason was great. We got in the weight room and worked on our speed and agility. We watched film and learned the playbook a lot better and we grew together.”
As tough as that loss was to swallow, it gave the Lions a boost of confidence and a feeling they could hang with the best in the Shore. They carried that attitude with them into the offseason and used it as motivation heading into this season and it has paid off in a big way.
“Even though we didn’t have the record to show for it, I think playing teams like Rumson, Mater Dei, RBC and the others set us up to play better this year with the competition we have now,” said Middletown North senior star running back/free safety Brian Haddow. “It was actually a good thing that set us up for senior year.”
Eight starters on offense and four on defense returned this season from last year’s team along with a number of players who saw substantial playing time a year ago. In all, eight seniors and three juniors start on offense and seven seniors, three juniors and one sophomore are starting on defense.
This is a team that has gone to battle with each other now for three and four years and have experienced a lot more lows than highs but the tide has turned. All their hard work is finally bearing fruit and the positive results are on the field.
“All of us have been playing together since we were like five year’s old,” said Haddow. “We were all really young when we started and to think that we’re all here now as seniors and we’re all still together, it’s just good to see it all come together for one last time.”
Giannone has been a vital part of the group since the beginning as well. “Believe it or not, most of us have been playing together since we were seven or eight, it’s a brotherhood and a family - I got their backs and they’ve got mine.”
The Lions (5-1) have already clinched a share of the Shore Conference Independence Division championship – their first division title since 1983.
“That means a lot,” said Haddow. “We’ve been talking about that since we were freshman. Every time we walked into the gym we would look up at the banner and see how long it’s been since North won a division title. So it means a lot to finally get it done and actually make the dream come true.”
“The guys worked hard were determined to get that,” said Bush on the division title. “It was nice to get that done and now we got to see what we can do from here.”
They’ve won four in a row, including the last three against perennial Shore Conference powers Brick Memorial, Brick Township and Saint John Vianney.
“It definitely feels good, it feels like all the hard work is paying off,” said Giannone of the Lions winning record. “Last season we lost a lot of tough game that we felt we could’ve won because of a couple of my mistakes. But we all got better in the off season and we all worked really hard so it’s really paying off and feels rewarding.”
In the Saint John Vianney game last Friday with the Lions trailing 21-17 late in the fourth quarter, Giannone marched the Lions the length of the field before capping off the drive with a 2-yard scoring strike to senior tight end Zac Searight with 46 seconds left to win the game 24-21.
“Definitely,” said Giannone when asked if the game-winning drive was one of the highlights of his career so far. “Anytime you win an exciting game like that, especially at home, it’s great to see - the feeling was amazing.”
For the game, Giannone went 27-of-38 passing for 364 yards and three touchdowns which is off the charts for a high school quarterback.
“He (Giannone) came into the huddle as soon as the drive started and looked at all of us and said, ‘We’re winning this game right now,’” said Haddow of ‘the drive.’ “When he said that, we knew we were going to win, we just believed him and drove down the field.”
The 6-foot-5, 215 pound Searight caught six passes for 91 yards in the game, including a 44-yard bomb for a TD that put the Lions up 17-7. Four of Searight’s receptions came on that crucial final scoring drive.
In his second year as a starter, Giannone – a second-team All-Division selection a year ago - has quietly put together a monster campaign so far this season. The 6-foot-6, 190 pound signal caller has completed 91-of-123 attempts (74%) for 1,346 yards and 11 touchdowns with only two interceptions after passing for 914 yards and eight touchdowns as a junior.
“Tommy’s the man,” Haddow said of his gunslinging quarterback. “He’s always comfortable in the pocket and every time he comes to the huddle no matter the situation he’s never worried. You can always trust him to make the right play and right throw. That’s my best friend right there and I know he’s always going to make the right read. He’s had one of the best seasons for a quarterback at North.”
Giannone is averaging 224.3 passing yards per game in six games which is at the high end of the spectrum for any high school quarterback.
“Tommy’s smart with the ball and he can get through his second and third reads,” said Bush. “He’s done a really good job for us. He’s a great kid, a quiet leader and really well liked by everyone on the team. He’s very coachable and picked up our offense quickly last year with a short preseason and was thrown into the fire with the schedule we had. But he did a lot of good things last year too and he’s just gotten a lot better this year with a year under his belt.”
The Lions aren’t winning by smoke and mirrors either. This is a very good football team up-and-down the roster.
Haddow is one of the most complete running backs in the Shore Conference – he can do it all. He leads the team rushing for 647 yards while averaging 5.3 yards per carry and has eight touchdowns. He also leads the team with 24 receptions for 308 yards and a touchdown out of the backfield.
“Brian is amazing,” said Giannone. “Offensively, defensively he always gives it his all. He always pushes his teammates and he’s a great leader and a great player.”
A first-team All-Division selection a year ago, Haddow is also one of the top defensive backs in the conference. At 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, the free safety dynamo is not one of the biggest defensive backs around but he hits like a ton of bricks and you know when he hits you.
“Brian’s a great football player and a great competitor,” said Bush. “He’s made great plays for us on both sides of the ball for three years now and is one of the best open-field tacklers and free safeties I’ve ever coached. As a running back he has very good vision and very quick feet and catches the ball really well out of the backfield. He’s just a tremendous all-around athlete.”
Haddow is third on the team in tackles with 43, including 28 solo tackles, along with four TFL and five defended passes which leads the team in that category.
Gianonne has a deep and talented group of receivers to throw to and he utilizes them all.
Senior wideouts Derek Soto (16-287-2) and Levi Wilson (15-270-3) and senior slot receiver Lucas Cerbo (16-207-2) are all capable of taking over a game and throw in the 6-foot-5 Searight (18-235-3) and Giannone has multiple targets with big-game capabilities to choose from.
“Tommy knows where everybody is going to be and he trusts them and they trust him and it has worked out well,” said Bush on his quarterback, receiver connection.
The offensive line brought back three starters with not only a lot of beef to them but a lot of road-grit. They’re led by three-year starting left tackle Jacinto Lopez (6-foot-5, 250), who anchors the line and is a mauler.
He’s joined by 6-foot-4, 297 pound two-year starting right tack Adam Conklin, a road grader that takes no hostages. At 5-foot-11, 230 pounds, two-year starting left guard Connor Clark rounds out the trio of behemoths and is a force to reckon with in his own right. Junior Lucas Ainbinder is a right guard and senior Karl Strauch mans the center position to complete the starting O line.
“My offensive line is great,” said Giannone. “They make everything work on offense. They work hard in practice and it shows up on Friday’s.”
Haddow is the leader in the secondary that is comprised of Soto and Wilson at the cornerback spots, senior Ryan Demedici at strong safety and senior Danny Cody at the ‘Rover’ position.
The 5-foot-11 Wilson leads the team with two interceptions along with 11 tackles (7 solo), two TFL and a pass defended while Soto has recorded 31 tackles (21 solo) - fifth on the team - and is tied for the team lead with five defended passes.
Demedici is a hard-hitter that does a great job in run support as well as defending agaisnt the pass. He’s second on the team with 45 tackles (25 solo) and fourth on the team in TFL with four along with an interception while averaging nine tackles a game.
Cody (11 tackles, TFL in three games) has been battling injuries and has been in-and-out of the lineup but when he is in there he makes his presence felt. In Cody’s absence, junior Mykal Callender has filled in admirably adding seven tackles and a game-clinching interception against Saint John Vianney.
Senior outside linebacker Colin Devine heads up a group of hardnosed second-level defenders in the Lions 3-3 stack defense. The 6-foot-2, 200 pound Devine leads the team in tackles with 68 (40 solo) averaging 11.3 tackles per game. He second on the team with seven TFL along with three QB hurries, one pass defended, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
“Colin’s done a great job for us,” said Bush. “Over the years we’ve moved him all around trying to figure out the best spot for him and he’s done a great job at linebacker this year. He’s a smart, physical player and a good leader on the field too.”
Opposite Devine on the outside is Cerbo doing double duty and chipping in with 15 tackles, two TFL, two QB hurries and two pass defended. In the middle is rising sophomore Justin Soto, who has recorded 34 tackles (17 solo), three TFL, two QB hurries and a fumble recovery. Sophomore James Barnao is in the linebacker rotation and has asserted himself well adding 17 tackles (12 solo), three TFL, two sacks and a forced fumble.
Only a junior, Lopez anchors the defensive line as well and has DI written all over him. He’s a handful for opposing linemen and takes pride in wrecking double teams. From his defensive end spot he has 23 tackles (14 solo), a team-leading 10 TFL, one sack, 13 QB hurries, a forced fumble and three passes batted down.
“He’s a really good player for us on both sides of the ball,” Bush said of Lopez. “He’s probably going to end up being a DI player with a lot of schools looking at him now. He’s a smart kid and has gotten a lot stronger and bigger this offseason. He’s also athletic and can do a lot of things for us.”
Junior Peter Dempsey lines up opposite Lopez at end and has put up some solid numbers with 28 tackles (10 solo), five TFL, three pass defended, seven QB hurries, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble. Dempsey is also the second tight end in the Power T formation.
Clark is a whirling dervish in the middle of the line while wreaking havoc on opposing offenses. He leads the team with three sacks along with four QB hurries, 17 tackles (9 solo), three TFL and five passes batted down.
Searight, Ainbinder and Conklin are all in the defensive line rotation.
Big Matchups Upcoming for Middletown North
Middletown North has been on the cusp of breaking into the Shore Conference Top 10 but are still on the outside looking in. This Friday, however, they travel to Wall (3-3) which is ranked sixth in the most recent SSN Top 10. So, a win against the Knights would almost assuredly move them into the rankings – easier said then done.
“The same way we approach any other game,” said Giannone when asked how the team is preparing for Wall. "It’s no secret that they’re a really good football team, but we just got to come out and do what we do on offense and defense, know our keys and hopefully we come away with a win.
“Being a top 10 team would be something to be proud of, but we have no control over that,” added Giannone. “So we just focus on what we can do and our next opponent.”
Following the Wall game, the Lions host another couple of top 10 teams in ninth-ranked Point Boro on Oct. 29 and of course undefeated and fourth-ranked Middletown South (5-0) on Thanksgiving.
“We’re just going to come out and play these games how we usually play,” said Haddow. “We’re not scared of anybody. We’re more physical than most teams, more athletic and we play with confidence no matter who we’re playing - we’re dangerous to play against.”
The Lions are ranked seventh in the NJSIAA North, Group IV Power Rankings (UPR) so more than likely they would need at least a win against either Wall or Point Boro to qualify and hopefully get a home game.
“This is a good opportunity the next two weeks to get some more power points and get into the playoffs and get a higher seed,” said Bush. “Wall’s been the top team in the Shore the last few years so it will be a good measuring stick for us.”
Giannone and his team have tunnel vision right now concentrating on just Wall.
“Honestly we’re focused on Wall and only Wall now,” said Giannone. “But in hindsight we know that if we win one of those games we’ll most likely get a home playoff game which is a big deal to us.”