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Fall forward: Romano, Venettone led Eagles to special seasons

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“Fans going crazy for the boys of fall,” Kenny Chesney sang. “They didn’t let just anybody in that club.

Took every ounce of heart and sweat and blood.”

South Hunterdon had two special boys of fall recently cap their careers after helping the Eagles soar in playoffs. Soccer forward Alex Romano and quarterback Anthony Venettone both led their teams to perfect divisional records and wins in sectionals.

In the fall of 2022, then junior Romano suffered a season-ending foot injury. It was the second time in three years that he suffered a major injury.

“My junior year – last year – we knew it was going to be more of a down year,” Romano explained. “We didn’t expect me to get injured, which didn’t help. But we weren’t losing any seniors so we thought it would be a building block year to connect and build on top of each other.”

The 2022 Eagles went a forgettable 5-10-1. The 2023 Eagles pivoted 180 degrees.

South Hunterdon soccer (15-5-1) won the Skyland Mountain, going a nearly perfect 9-0-1 in divisional play ... 10-0-1 if you include the 6-0 thumping of Belvidere in the Hunterdon/Warren/Sussex Tournament. The Eagles also won two sectional games, advancing to the Group 1 semifinals for the first time since 2019.

Romano led the scoring with an absurd 35 goals, one of the highest marks in New Jersey. That included seven hat tricks, including three in a row in wins against Immaculata, Solebury and Belvidere the week of Sept. 21. Yet the defense, which posted nine shutouts, made sure that many of those goals were insurance and not game-winners.

“I had a lot of off season training. I’m addicted to working out and getting the adrenaline boost from getting better every day,” Romano said. “I give a lot of credit to that. But overall, it was about the team. We were very united and stuck together through our first loss and some downs and injuries we had. It was a family we built early in the year and we kept the momentum.”

Kyle Ingersoll and Ollie Horan both added a half dozen goals. Ingersoll’s 18 assists by far led the team.

“I was lucky enough to be up top and get the ball – credit to Kyle Ingersoll who had a ton of assists,” Romano said. “He helped me beat the defender and get the ball in the net. That seemed to work all year. It was amazing having him in the midfield.”

South Hunterdon tied its opener 0-0 hosting Warren Hills. “I’ll take the blame for that,” Romano admitted. “I missed a PK.”

Romano didn’t miss many more. The Eagles roared off five straight wins, fell to Rutgers Prep in a rain storm, and had another five-game win streak after that.

And Romano did his damage against Warren Hills three weeks later, scoring the game’s only goal to give South Hunterdon the inside track on the conference championship. “We held from there,” Romano said. “The defense did a phenomenal job and did so for the entire season.”

Conference titles are nice but the Eagles also made a lot of noise in sectionals, winning two games before falling to College Achieve Central 2-1 in the semifinals. It was South Hunterdon’s deepest playoff run since 2019.

“We went up 1-0 and let in two goals in the second half. That was that. But from my perspective as a senior and a captain, we had a huge year,” Romano said. “It was one of the best years South has had.”

***

Venettone both rushed (1,010) and passed (1,028) for over 1,000 yards this fall.

“We had a lot of communication with the receivers telling them what to run and when to run it,” Venettone continued. “That definitely allowed me to get those numbers. And our offensive line being able to block was huge. It was a lot trickier for them because they never knew if it was going to be a pass or a run. They had no idea.”

Dual-threat Venettone was a big reason why South Hunterdon football (9-2) had a nine-game win streak and won its first playoff game since 2014. The Eagles also won their division, the Big Central Freedom Silver, with a perfect 4-0 record.

Venettone was a converted running back/cornerback who had no game experience as quarterback. He was also asked to learn a new system as the Eagles ditched their wing-T and put in a run pass option (RPO) based offense. Venettone had as many pass completions this year (65) as the Eagles had pass attempts last year.

“I had options to hand off, pass or run,” he described. “It was a reading offense, which was new to me since this was my first year at quarterback. It was new to learn how to read, when to pull the ball and when to hand off.”

What Venettone lacked in experience, he made up for in speed, scrambling ability and arm strength. In the Eagles’ opening three wins, Venettone completed 21 passes for 427 yards. He threw six touchdowns and only three interceptions.

Venettone rattled off four straight 120-yard rushing games in wins over Manville, Brearley, Dunellen and Dayton in weeks 5 through 8.

South Hunterdon yielded just 88 points during that win streak. Edward Cooper, the team’s leading tackler, recovered three fumbles while Ryan Rampel was credited with seven sacks.

“Our defense was flawless all season. We only let up a few touchdowns throughout the course of the year,” Venettone credited. “Coach (Kyle) Hart kept our defense in check. We do a lot of film watching. We were almost able to call the play they ran before they ran it. That’s how good our coaching is.”

That streak included a 16-6 home win over Salem in the opening round of sectionals. “That win was so big for the program. We had made playoffs for two years in a row and lost,” Venettone recalled. “It was huge for the senior class to be able to come in and take a win, especially at home, for the first time in nine years. It added to a historic season for us.”


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