The region title game Nov. 28 is the farthest any team can advance in that weight class, which has a range of 95 to 135 pounds, and the Eagles were the first Millstone team to reach the region finals. Most of the team is made up of players from Millstone and Allentown, with two from Manalapan and another from Monroe.
Vincent Spitalieri, an eighth grader from Manalapan, caught a 25-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter from quarterback Dan Merkel, a seventh grader from Millstone, and Christopher McCrea kicked the deciding conversion. Conversion kicks count for two points in Pop Warner and McCrae, an eighth grader from Allentown, was reliable on conversions and also made seven field goals on the season, including the longest from 38 yards.
McCrae tackled the Schenectady-Belmont quarterback on fourth down at the 19- yard line as the game ended.
Merkel scored on a quarterback sneak from 4 yards out on the opening drive. Sean Mulligan, an eighth grader from Millstone playing quarterback, dove into the end zone from a yard out for a touchdown in the second quarter.
It was the first championship game appearance in the 25-yard history of the program — the first 15 years based out of Allentown and the last 10 out of Millstone.
Three years ago, the same group of players as Junior Pee Wees won Central Jersey and state championships and reached the semifinals of region play.
This time, they reeled off seven playoff victories, including three in Central Jersey and four in the regions — the prior six all in convincing style. In Central Jersey, they beat Old Bridge, 33-0, North Edison, 32-6, and Edison, 30-20.
“It was something to see — a little town playing big-city programs that have a much larger drawing pool and doing so well,” coach Ben Minton said.
Millstone beat Manasquan, 35-14, St. Cecilia of Woodbridge, 36-13, and Centerville from Camden, 33-12, in region play, which included teams from New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Washington D.C. The region covers 25 conferences and 500 organizations. “We talked every day at practice about what it would take to reach that goal,” said Minton, who has coached nearly the same group over the past three years with his staff of Dan Merkel, Tony Abarno and Dan Giacolonia from Millstone, Shawn McCrea from Allentown and Andrew Alvarez from Fort Lee.
Eleanor Czysz was team administrator.
“They’re a tremendous group of athletes on both sides of the ball. They had success but were a very humble group that took care of business and moved on, which is very unique,” Minton said. “They learned a life lesson about setting high goals and working to attain them.”
The Eagles, competing in Central Jersey Division III, went 5-2, but both losses came to larger Division II opponents. Gino Giacolonia, an eighth grader from Millstone, was the wingback, and Millstone eighth grader Chris Forte also carried the ball. Tyler Minton, an eighth grader from Millstone, helped open up holes for the productive offense along with left tackle Dave Villani (eighth grade, Millstone), left guard Dennis “Rudy” Healy (sixth grade, Allentown), center Joe Martone (seventh grade, Manalapan), right guard T.J. Sico (seventh grade, Millstone) and right tackle Quinton Autry (eighth grader, Millstone). Ramsey Benflau, a seventh grader from Millstone, also was a contributor on offense.
Many doubled-up on the 4-2-5 defensive alignment. Mulligan and Autry were the ends, Sico and Villani were the tackles, Minton and Giacolonia were outside linebackers, Millstone eighth graders A.J. Abarno and Ajai Kenyatta were inside linebackers and Merkel played safety.
Millstone eighth graders Liam Hixenbaugh and Renzo Bagatoli rotated in on the defensive line.
The team has a good future. Although many graduate into the high school ranks, Millstone’s Pee Wees beat West Windsor- Plainsboro, 42-13, for the Central Jersey title. It lost, 12-6, to Manasquan in its region opener.