I really don’t know where to begin. The Homecoming game was three-and-a-half hours of pure craziness, and part of me doesn’t even want to write about what happened; nevertheless, it was a mind-boggling slugfest that was close until the bitter end and was undoubtedly this season’s most defining game for Middletown South.
I’ll start with the surface-level stuff.
South let Toms River North hang 34 points on them, and the Eagles’ defense looked helpless for most of the night. TRN’s All-Shore running back Jarrod Pruitt racked up 194 yards on the ground, and their QB Jake Kazanowski was on fire, going 10-23 and netting 151 passing yards and passing for two touchdowns. The Eagles managed to hold the Mariners scoreless in the 3rd, but this came after TRN put together a sizzling 70 yard drive (in under 30 seconds) that ended with a critical touchdown and extra point at the first half buzzer.
Truth be told, the Eagles really didn’t step up to meet the challenge of one of the Shore’s best offenses. Instead, they got torched on the ground and in the air once again; this is now the 4th time in 5 games the Eagles have let up 20 points or more in under 3 quarters of play, and all four of those games were losses.
On the contrary, TRN’s defense proved unable to consistently stifle South’s offense. Vinny Condito was again a force the defense had no answer for, netting 90 rushing yards and a touchdown. Chris Lotito—in the best game of his high school career—was supersonic, showing off his incredible speed while picking up 81 rushing yards to go with 31 receiving yards, and he threw a perfect halfback pass to wideout Matt Krellin for a TD. Speaking of Krellin, he was able to pick up 84 recieving yards to go along with that touchdown. QB Tyler Cuccia also enjoyed a good first half with a 30 yard rushing touchdown. The Eagles managed to score 29 points, and it all came from stellar offense from their stars. Their ability to score the ball was certainly not lacking.
Now to get to what the numbers can’t tell you.
There were 5 injuries in this game, and it proved costly for both sides both in terms of the talent and the morale lost. Both teams lost two receivers; South lost Matt Krellin to a collarbone injury and Luke Albrecht (in only his second game back) to the reinjury of his arm. Each team also, tragically, saw a player sent to the hospital; for the Eagles that player was tight end Brendan Bigos after he suffered a gruesome leg injury. It was very sad to see so many injuries and sucked the life out of the game until…
Until final quarter.
Now, throughout the game, the Eagles managed to hang around even when it looked like TRN was delivering the final blow, and it was amazing to see South refuse to go down without a fight. The most dramatic retaliation came in the fourth. After being benched in favor of Vinny Bonavita, Cuccia responded fiercely as a wideout with a 33 yard receiving touchdown and this brought the Eagles to within 5. The crowd now in a frenzy, TRN got the ball back, and Jarrod Pruitt swiftly broke free and got all the way to the 1 yard line…before Chris Lotito amazingly tackled him and stripped the ball, which was recovered by the Eagles. With a few minutes to spare, the Bonavita and the Eagles had a chance to win the game on one last drive. It all came down to a 4th and 5, and, unfortunately, Bonavita was sacked; TRN took a knee and ran out the clock to secure the victory. It really, really hurt to see them come up just short. They took an onslaught only to fall in the closing seconds.
Aside from the defensive struggles, this game demonstrated that the Eagles lack an answer at quarterback. Cuccia and Bonavita are two different players, with Cuccia as the superior athlete but Bonavita a more capable passer. Cuccia struggles with turnovers, as he threw two interceptions against TRN, but Bonavita is more prone to being brought down, as he was sacked twice by TRN. There were many times in this game that Bonavita would have been able to secure a completion (there were plenty of passes just inches off) and there were times were Cuccia could have picked up big yards by running QB keepers (especially late game). Maybe they could share the position based on the play being called, but that seems unlikely at this stage. In any case, something needs to be figured out.
With this loss, the Eagles fall to 1-4, and as the #15 seed their playoff hopes hang by a thread. The tough schedule and the injuries have shown no mercy on Middletown South. This game against TRN was the perfect opportunity to get Power Points and breathe new life into the season: after all, it was a close game, TRN’s defense was nonexistent, and the Eagles were a few breaks away from victory. Now, with this chance utterly blown, it will take a win over Rumson on the road (a team that just beat the previous #1 on the Shore in Mater Dei Prep) to get their playoff hopes off of life support. It is not impossible, but it is highly unlikely, seeing as how Rumson has been utterly dominant lately. All I can say, after watching every game this season, is that the Eagles need to play their hearts out for the rest of the way. The season is nearly over, and the Eagles should not look to go out with a sputter after this heartbreaking Homecoming loss. Rather, they should look to put forth their best effort and go out on a high note.