Middletown North High School football coach Steve Bush does not shy away from the fact that the Lions faced tough challenges in 2020 when they played against some of the top teams in the Shore Conference.
From opening the season against Rumson-Fair Haven to games against Mater Dei Prep, Red Bank Catholic and rival Middletown South, Bush said his players learned a lot from a 1-5 season that saw several games lost to the coronavirus pandemic.
He said his players can use that “valuable” experience to their advantage in 2021.
“We got thrown into probably the toughest division in the Shore Conference last year,” Bush said in an interview. “Our guys competed through that and learned a lot from it. We need to put that to use this year.”
Middletown North will play in the Shore Conference-Independence Division in 2021. The division also includes Howell, Brick Memorial, Brick Township and Lacey. The Lions will open the season hosting Freehold Township on Sept. 2.
The Lions will try to make a run for the division title and to put themselves in position to earn a state playoff berth with returning firepower on offense. That starts with senior quarterback Tommy Giannone, who passed for 914 yards and eight touchdowns in six games a year ago.
Bush said Giannone has looked good in training camp and has a good understanding of the offense.
Leading the ground attack will be senior running back Brian Haddow, a three-year starter who provides experience and leadership. In addition to running back, Haddow will also play in the defensive backfield.
“He is a good player,” Bush said of Haddow.
During the past two seasons, Haddow has rushed for 1,045 yards and scored four touchdowns. He will also boost the passing attack; in 2020 he caught 20 passes for 93 yards and one touchdown. On defense, Haddow was second on the team in tackles in 2020 with 57 stops.
Other playmakers on offense are expected to include Derek Soto, Levi Wilson and Lucas Cerbo.
Junior Jack Lopez and senior Connor Clark will anchor the offensive and defensive lines.
“We have a pretty good first group of players. We just have to fill a couple of holes around them,” Bush said.
Throughout training camp, Bush said, the biggest thing he and his assistant coaches have watched for is seeing which players are stepping up to compete on the field and who knows the playbook.
“We are evaluating every day. We want to see who steps up and competes and makes plays; who knows what their assignment is and how to execute it on the field,” he said.
The Lions’ preseason scrimmage schedule included Raritan, Toms River East and Rumson-Fair Haven.
After his team’s scrimmage against Raritan High School in Hazlet on Aug 18, Bush said he believed the players got better as the scrimmage went on. He said facing a well-coached, good team like Raritan was a good challenge for the Lions in preparation for the season.
“We just have to keep going and stay healthy,” he said.