It has not been the smoothest ride for Jackson Memorial, but it has gotten to the point where it is one win away from successfully defending the NJSIAA Central Group IV championship.
“Last year, we didn’t have a lot of injuries,” Jackson Memorial coach Walt Krystopik said. “This year, we’ve had different groups rotate in and out because of injuries. It has been next guy in and make it work. The kids have been pretty resilient and fought through it.”
The Jaguars (7-4) also overcame a three-game losing streak in October to Shore Conference Class A South tri-champions Brick (8-2), Toms River North (10-1) and Brick Memorial (9-2), with Toms River North and Brick Memorial also being sectional finalists.
Injuries hit the offensive line, where senior Dylan Smith underwent season-ending knee injury and several other starters missed time because of injury.
The Jaguars were also hit by injuries at the quarterback position, where Dan Barker — the starter the first six games of the season — missed three games because of a concussion. That eventually resulted in the Jackson Memorial coaching staff making a late-season decision to move standout senior wide receiver Kyle Johnson to quarterback and move senior running back Vinny Lee to receiver.
Even star junior running back/safety Mike Gawlik missed most of the Southern game in Week 3 because of injury, Krystopik said.
“It’s just been a different person stepping up and filling the void,” Krystopik said.
And since the playoffs began, the Jaguars have shown they still have what it takes to be a champion. They avenged a 2-0 loss to Brick with a 21-7 win over the Green Dragons in which Gawlik ran for 212 yards and two touchdowns on 36 carries. Jackson Memorial then overwhelmed Steinert, 56-10.
They will now try to avenge the 28-7 loss to Brick Memorial on Oct. 16 when they meet the Mustangs on Saturday at 4 p.m. at Rutgers University’s High Point Solutions in the Central Group IV championship game.
“We’re the healthiest we’ve been all season,” Krystopik said.
And the Jaguars are probably the most dangerous they have been, too.
The move to put the very athletic Johnson at quarterback has given the Jaguars another running threat in the backfield. It has also resulted in Gawlik being the full-time tailback, with the quick Lee replacing Johnson as the threat at receiver.
Krystopik and his coaching staff also made the decision to put some read-option stuff into the offensive scheme to complement the Jaguars’ traditional power, counter and stretch schemes they have run successfully for years out of the I-formation.
“It was just a matter of getting the ball in the hands of one of our better players more,” said Krystopik, about the decision to move Johnson to quarterback. “He (Johnson) wanted the pressure to step up and make plays. He has stepped up and done a very good job. It has balanced everything out.”
The new-look offense passed a tough test against Brick’s rugged defense. It will face another severe test in Brick Memorial’s defense.
The Mustangs’ defensive line, led by seniors Mike Nobile, Anthony Nobile and Chris Hayes, is one of the best in the Shore Conference. Jackson Memorial had just 55 yards rushing in the first Brick Memorial game. Brick Memorial sacked Barker five times for 55 yards in losses in that first meeting.
“They are very physical,” Krystopik said.
Jackson Memorial’s defense, led by end Tyler Towns, lineman Austin Ostrander, linebacker Zack Lubertazzi and backs Gawlik, Johnson and Lee, will have to find a way to slow down Brick Memorial’s triple-option offense out of the flexbone alignment, led by senior quarterback Tim Santiago and sophomore running back Tony Thorpe. The Mustangs’ offensive line consists of the same players who comprise the defensive line. Brick Memorial scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to break away from a 7-7 tie in the first meeting.
“They have all the components you need to run that offense,” Krystopik said. “They’re one of the best teams around running it.”
Jackson Memorial hopes to prove once again it is one of the most resilient teams around.
Staff writer Steven Falk: 732-643-4267; firstname.lastname@example.org