MIDDLETOWN – With two weeks remaining in the 2017 season, Middletown South’s record stood at 0-12-1. However, six of those losses were by one goal, including five in overtime and another three losses were decided by two goals.
The Eagles then reeled off four straight wins and closed out the season winning five of their final six games, including a 3-1 win over Neptune in the NJSIAA North 2, Group III first round and a hard-fought 2-0 loss to Colts Neck, who went on to win the North 2, Group III championship, in the second round.
“The year before last I graduated 10 seniors with all them either starters or critical players,” Middletown South head coach Jordan Hickman said. “I only brought back one varsity player, so coming into last season I knew it would be tough, but I also knew I had a really good group of kids that had potential. I just didn’t know how long it would take for them to kind of get it together.”
The Eagles have carried over their late season success from a year ago into this year and have been one of the most impressive teams in the Shore Conference posting an 11-1 overall record into the latter part of their schedule.
“Last season I really placed heavy responsibility on the underclassmen – the four freshmen and a couple of sophomores that I had in my starting lineup – and they made really great strides. We were in all these games that we were playing; we just couldn’t score. But it all turned around on our senior night when we beat Donovan Catholic, 8-0. We just needed a little momentum and from there I knew that where we left off last season we needed to pick up this season.”
And they certainly have done that. Not only have they picked up where they left off last season, they’ve grown into one of the top teams in the Shore dominating their opposition while outscoring them by a margin of 52-5, including nine shutouts.
They’ve faced six ranked teams and defeated five of them with their only setback thus far being a 1-0 loss to Red Bank Catholic – ranked eighth in the preseason top 10.
The Eagles’ emergence as a legitimate Shore Conference power this season shouldn’t surprise since the program does have three sectional titles (1980, 1982, 1995) to its credit and recently they’ve be on the cusp of doing some big things but ended up falling just short.
In 2015 as the fifth seed in the North 2, Group III playoffs they reached the semifinals before losing to Freehold, then a year later in 2016 as the No. 3 seed they again lost to Freehold in the semifinals, this time by a 2-1 score.
If the Eagles can maintain their level of play, a number one seed and home-field advantage throughout the state playoffs seems like a distinct possibility. And after failing to make the cut in last year’s SCT they’ll be seeded in a spot where they should be able to make a nice run.
South entered this season without much fanfare due to last year’s deceiving record, but what went unnoticed was that they returned 10 starters from a year ago and their three-year starting goalkeeper, Sam Messina.
After making a whopping 150 saves last season to keep the Eagles in most games, Messina has been phenomenal in goal again this season allowing just five goals all season long with nine shutouts.
“She’s amazing,” said Hickman of her star goalie. “She’s the voice of our team always loud and talking whether or not the ball is on her side or not. She really is our eyes on the field communicating with defenders and is not afraid to slide or dive or whatever it takes to not let the ball go in the goal. She’s a major asset to my team.”
Senior defender and captain, Danielle Totilo, is a three-year starter in the backfield and is an integral cog in the Eagles shutdown defense and success this season.
“Danielle is my center back and has been since she was a freshman,” said Hickman of her defensive leader. “She came in late in her freshman year from JV and has been a critical defender ever since.
“I would say my defense is the most solid, which is the reason why last year we were in these games but not winning them,” Hickman added. “My defense wasn’t allowing a lot but my offense was having a hard time finishing.”
Sophomore Rene Lioudakis and senior Shannon Kason join Totilo in the backfield forming one of the top defensive units in the Shore.
“Across the board I think our defense is really strong; they do a really nice job.” Hickman added.
Senior midfielder and captain, Isla Brennan, is back after leading the team in assists as a sophomore with 13 but missed last season due to a basketball injury. She’s currently second on the team with eight goals along with two assists and has easily rounded back into form.
“Isla’s just a natural athlete,” said Hickman of Brennan, who just committed to play DII basketball at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. “She plays field hockey I think because she just enjoys it and it’s less stressful for her. It’s an outlet for her and she’s just phenomenal at it.”
The Eagle employ a diamond formation in the midfield with Brennan (8 goals, 2 assists) on the left, junior Kelsey O’Keefe (4 goals) on the right, sophomore Gianna Racioppi (9 goals, 4 assists) up top and sophomore Emily Salvadore (1 goal, 2 assists) in the back.
“Gianna is part of my sophomore quad of really strong talented players,” Hickman said. “I’m very demanding of her and I can trust she’ll be anywhere the ball is at all times. She’s fast, she’s skilled and plays with intensity.”
The starting forwards are senior Cassie Guerra, who leads the team with 13 goals along with three assists on the left; sophomore Lia Simoniello (9 goals, 5 assists) on the right; and senior Ally Friberg (4 goals, six assists) in the center.
“Cassie’s very dominant,” said Hickman. “Her and Isla play together on the left and work really well together. They have really good stick skills on the reverse with both able to control the ball with one hand. She’s super fast and knows when to put the ball in the air so she’ll get real close to the goal but her biggest strength is her speed.
“Lia’s also part of that sophomore quad and as a softball player her hand-to-eye coordination is impeccable. She can knock the ball out of the air; she’s really good with playing off the pads and picking up the rebound and really helps to finish on scoring opportunities.”
Friberg led the team in goals scored a year ago and leads the team in assists this season.
“Ally has significantly improved from last year,” said Hickman. “Her job this year is to more or less dish it out to one of my wings on the forward line. She’s very selfless in the fact she will share her scoring opportunities with her teammates.“
With a perfect 7-0 A North record, Middletown South controls its own destiny for the division crown.
“I have such a great group of kids this year,” Hickman said. “I couldn’t have asked for more. They have already exceeded my expectations and I’m excited to see what the next few weeks have in store for us.”
UPDATE: In an important A North matchup, Middletown South moved two games ahead of Freehold Township in the standings after downing the Patriots, 2-0, on Friday. With the win the Eagles improve to 12-1 and 8-0 in the division while Freehold Township fell to 8-3 and 6-2 in the A North division. Brennan led the charge with a goal and an assists and O’Keefe added a solo goal. Messina picked up her tenth shutout of the season stopping two shots in the process.