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Sep 08, 2022

Middletown North Football Looking to Take on Tough Division

By Tim Morris

Middletown High School North rebounded from a 1-4 pandemic-shortened 2020 to claim a championship and return to the postseason playoffs. The Lions went 5-6 in ’21, however, they were the co-champions of the Shore Conference Liberty Division (with Lacey) and qualified for the NJSIAA state playoffs.

North Head Coach Steve Bush has a solid core of returners and more depth in areas than before to try and improve on 2021. Two returning seniors are the standouts of 2022. Jack Lopez is a four-year starter at defensive end and offensive tackle, and Peter Dempsey is the tight end and defensive end. They are the bookends of North’s defensive line. 

In Luke Sheehan, the Lions have a quarterback who is set to take the reins of the offense, despite seeing limited action. Bush noted that the junior is ready.

“He’s an athletic kid,” Bush said of his quarterback. “He has a strong arm and understands [defensive] coverages.”

Although he can run, Bush doesn’t want Sheehan to make a steady diet of it. Sheehan has a deep core of receivers to throw to, led by the versatile senior Justin Soto, who pulled down 24 passes last year and was on the receiving end of two TD aerials. Dylan Briggs (Jr.), Brian Dunleavy (Jr.), Ka’Ley Spearman (Jr.) and Jack LaBruno (Sr.) round out the receiving core that includes the 6-foot-2, 220-pound tight end Dempsey. Even with this deep receiving core, don’t expect the Lions to be pass-happy in 2022.

“We look to stay close to 50/50 [run and pass],” Bush explained.

James Barnao (Jr.) will be the featured running back with Soto and Spearman also contributing. The offensive line is shaping up to be a strength of the offense, Bush remarked. Harvard-bound Lopez is the line’s leader. He’s grown to 6-foot-5, 260 pounds. Lucas Ainbinder (Sr.), Andrew Klimovich (So.), Giovanni Antonucci (Jr.), Tom Randolph (Jr.) and Ryan Koenig (Jr.) combine size and experience to form a tight unit. Dempsey is just as good at being an additional blocker as he is receiving.

The Lions play a 3-4 stack defense with their defensive ends as the mainstays. Lopez has been sacking QBs since he was a freshman when he totaled seven. This duo can wreck offensive game plans.

North has depth at nose guard with Ambinder, Ryan Tucker (Sr.) and Antonucci rotating. The versatile Soto is the middle linebacker. This unit is deep and can makes plays. Barnao, Dunleavy, Gavin Halloran (Jr.) and Mike Subik (Sr.) have experience while Nick Scerbo (Jr.) adds another playmaker to the unit. Briggs, Mykal Callender (Sr.), Rich Grabowski (Sr.), Ryan Kane (Sr.), Richie Welton (Jr.) and Colin Jacques (Jr.) are North’s secondary starters.

Ian Poole-Morgan (Jr.) is a proven place-kicker who could make a difference is a close game. Halloran is efficient at directional punting. 

Middletown North has moved to the Colonial Division this fall with Toms River North, Central Regional, Lacey, Southern Regional and Long Branch.

“It’s a tough division,” Bush pointed out.

That toughness could be a bonus should the Lions navigate through it and make the playoffs. There is an added incentive for playoff teams this year with Group state champions being decided for the first time. For Bush, that is a nice carrot to chase but not exactly what he is thinking about.

“We’re taking it one step at a time trying to get ourselves back into the playoffs,” said Bush.