MIDDLETOWN, NEW JERSEY
– The Middletown South Eagles advanced to the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III championship game with a 17-6 victory over the Neptune Scarlet Fliers on Friday night at “The Swamp.”
The Eagles were defeated by the Freehold Boro Colonials in last year’s state finals. Middletown South quarterback Scott Meeker is grateful to have another shot at the championship this season, and he is determined to help claim the school’s tenth sectional title.
“We were there last year, and we left empty handed,” Meeker said. “We’ve been preaching all season that we don’t want to leave empty handed this time.”
Middletown South, the No. 1 seed in the CJ III tournament, will face the Monroe Township Falcons, the No. 2 seed, in the championship game. The Falcons defeated the Ocean Township Spartans 31-20 in the other semifinal.
“We have to trust the defense,” Meeker said about playing Monroe Township. “We’re going to try to shut down whatever they’re going to throw at us, and hopefully we’ll be able to attack them. We just have to take advantage of every opportunity we can.”
Neptune came into “The Swamp” looking for revenge. The Eagles defeated the Scarlet Fliers 16-0 on homecoming at Memorial Field in Neptune earlier in the season.
Neptune has not defeated Middletown South since the 1998 CJ III finals. The Scarlet Fliers embarrassed the Eagles 58-13, setting the record for the most points scored in a New Jersey state championship game.
This was the first time the two teams met in the playoffs since 1998, and Middletown South did not want their winning streak against Neptune and their undefeated season to end in the semifinals.
Middletown South deflated any hopes of a Neptune upset early in the first quarter. The Eagles scored on their second drive of the game when Meeker connected with Taylor Rogers for a 35-yard touchdown. Middletown South, who has not trailed in any game this season, did not look back after jumping out to an early 7-0 lead.
The Eagles drove down the field again on their next drive, but the Neptune defense stopped them two yards short of a first down at the 9-yard line. Middletown South lined up for a field goal attempt, but the Scarlet Fliers jumped offsides. The Eagles capitalized two plays later on a 3-yard touchdown pass from Meeker to Kevin O’Reilly.
Trailing 14-0 in the second quarter and facing fourth-and-5 from the 13-yard line, Neptune elected not to kick a field goal. Quarterback Matthew Gannon made the decision pay off. Gannon found Isaias “Ikie” Calderon in the end zone, and Neptune cut the Middletown South lead to 14-6.
The Eagles tacked on more points with a 28-yard field goal by Connor Ryan and went into the locker room at halftime leading 17-6.
Defense was the story in the second half. Neptune forced two Middletown South turnovers, but their offense was not able to produce any more points against the potent Eagles defense. Middletown South has only given up 45 points in 10 games (an average of 4.5 points per game), and the defense has yet to give up more than one touchdown in any game.
“Not to say you can make mistakes, but if you make a mistake, you know you have a defense to back you up,” Meeker said. “Tonight, I made some bad plays and I put them in some bad positions, but they showed how good they are and they got out of it.”
The Scarlet Fliers tried to come back late in the fourth quarter. Athletic catches by Calderon and wide receiver Phil Craddock put Neptune in Middletown South territory with five minutes to go.
“Bend, but don’t break!” the Middletown South coaches yelled from the sidelines.
The defense listened to the words of their coaches. With 3:25 remaining, Brian Benedetto came up with an interception at the 3-yard line. The Eagles offense picked up two first downs and ran out the clock, clinching a spot in the CJ III finals.
“I was just thinking that last year in the playoffs, I really didn’t play as well as I could have. This year, I knew I didn’t want to let my teammates down again,” Benedetto said. “When that ball went up in the air, I knew I had to do it for them. I had to do it for my brother who was on the team last year. He didn’t get the state championship his senior year, so I want to get it back for him. I would do anything for any of these guys. I just wanted to help them out and get back to the state championship game.”
Neptune will play their final game of the season against the Asbury Park Bishops, the No. 10 team in the Shore Conference, on Thanksgiving. The Scarlet Fliers upset the Bishops last season when Asbury Park was ranked No. 1 in the Shore.
Current No. 1 Middletown South will play their last home game against their crosstown rivals, the Middletown North Lions, in a tuneup for the championship game.
“Right now, we’re just concentrating on Middletown North,” Benedetto said. “As soon as we get by them, we’ll go off to play Monroe Township. Monroe Township is a great team, but we’ll prepare for them when it comes.”