By Wayne Witkowski
When Steve Bush took over Middletown High School North’s football team as head coach four years ago, he took a gamble starting freshmen Don Glenn at quarterback and Dwight Wilkerson at wide receiver and in the defensive secondary.
It paid off, as they became part of the building blocks for a program that has developed a winning trend under Bush, with last year’s 7-4 record marking its most victories since the 2000 season.
“Those kids have done a good job,” said Bush, who opened preseason practice Aug. 10. “They’ve all gotten a good understanding of things. This season, they’re further along.”
Off the spread offense, Glenn threw for 2,023 yards and 15 touchdowns. Brandon Kube, another part of that senior nucleus, caught 63 of Glenn’s 123 completed passes for 1,066 yards and five touchdowns. Their efforts last season propelled Middletown North into the NJSIAA North Jersey, Section II, Group III playoffs, where they beat perennial contender Sayreville War Memorial High School, 31-6, and lost to Middletown High School South, 41-14, in the first of back-to-back games between the crosstown rivals. Six days later, Middletown South won the Thanksgiving rivalry, 39-16, over Middletown North and went on to win the state championship.
Both Middletown teams moved to the Shore Conference B North Division for this season.
“I think last year we put ourselves on the map,” Glenn said. “Once coach Bush came along, it took a year or two and then we opened people’s eyes. We’re not an easy team to play anymore.
“Dwight and I have seen it all from winning three games in our freshman year, and Brandon Kube had an outstanding season as one of the best [receivers] in the Shore. Everyone worked their tails off to get to this point. But being the senior year for some of us and our last time, we’ve really worked at it. This is the hardest we’ve worked for a season.”
Middletown North opens its season at 7 p.m. Sept. 9 at Neptune High School and then opens in its new division against Red Bank Catholic High School at 7 p.m. Sept. 16. Ocean Township High School, Wall High School, Long Branch High School and Manasquan High School also are in the division.
“There are a lot of good teams in that division. It will be a challenge playing new people. … We didn’t finish the way we’d like to last season, but we did better in those [two] games than I thought against the team that ended up No. 1 in the state,” Bush said of Middletown South. “But we beat Manalapan [High School] (a perennial power that Bush once coached, by an 18-8 score) and now have established this as a winning program. We want to keep things going in that direction and go out and compete in the division.”
The Lions prepared well in offseason and summer workouts as well as 7 vs. 7 tournaments hosted by Rutgers University and Monmouth University and reached the semifinals of a Monmouth County tournament.
“I like the attitude and energy. I’m very pleased, and we have to maintain that,” Bush said. “For this year, it will be taking care of the little things and paying attention to detail — to do what we have to do and not do too much.”
With the spread offense, there are three talented receivers who got plenty of action last season in Kube; Wilkerson, who caught 16 passes for 218 yards and two touchdowns; and Mark Cerbo, who also started on defense in the secondary. They are among the 16 seniors on this year’s team.
Chad Freshnock, who had excelled in his long playing career with the Lions at running back and linebacker and who will attend Bucknell University starting in the fall, missed much of last season with injuries. It gave Connor Welsh the opportunity to step in and respond with 760 yards and seven rushing touchdowns. Brock Zenker, another senior this fall, can block and catch the ball at tight end and also doubles on defense at outside linebacker or strong safety.
Senior tackle Jake Goldfarb is the only offensive lineman with extensive experience.
Assistant coaches George Costas and Larry McKnight, who coach the lines on both sides of the ball, will rebuild that offensive unit. The entire coaching staff returns, with Jeff Nassimini as defensive coordinator, Bush as offensive coordinator, Jason Pino as running backs and outside linebackers coach and Randy Kalman as wide receivers and defensive backs coach. Kalman will also oversee special teams.
Bush feels his line coaches have good talent available to work with in seniors Anthony Canova, who started early last season and missed much of the rest of the season with an injury, Justin Muller and Austin Bazuk, who Bush said came along and made big strides when he played football for the first time last season. Tim McCann, who is back on the team after skipping last season, is getting a good look as the center.
Goldfarb also played in spots on the defensive line at end. Austin Dewise started at the other end spot. Muller, Canova and Bazuk, along with Ryan Covington and Nick Coffone, who will both be juniors this fall, also could share playing time up front in the 4-2-5 formation.
Nick Kish returns for his third season starting at linebacker, and senior Thomas Anderson started many games there last season as well while senior Ryan Stark is back after he missed last season with an injury. Zenker is one of the outside linebackers. Sam Santiago, a senior who started most of last season, and Cerbo are the frontrunners at cornerback at this early stage of preseason, and Kube and Daylon Wilkerson, a junior who is Dwight’s young brother, are competing for the rover spot.
Kish returns at punter, but Dewise also has looked sharp there. Joe Cavanagh returns as the kicker, where he made 21 of 22 extra point attempts and converted his only field-goal attempt.