HAMILTON Never mind Jackson Memorial’s low seed for the NJSIAA playoffs and the team’s ordinary win-loss record. The Jaguars are zoned in on defending their Central Jersey Group IV championship.
“Last year was great but this season we had to make our own identity and be our own team. We stumbled a little bit during the season but we’ve found our footing,’’ said senior linebacker/tight end Tyler Towns Saturday after Jackson Memorial pounded Steinert 56-10 in the section semifinals.
The points Jackson Memorial scored are program records for a road game and for a playoff game.
Junior running back Mike Gawlik rushed for 181 yards and senior quarterback Kyle Johnson chipped in with 118 rushing yards as Steinert proved to be no match.
Jackson Memorial turned it up a notch after securing a 21-10 halftime lead. Towns sacked Steinert quarterback Kyle Muller on the first play of the second half and Johnson ended the possession with an interception.
That defensive surge set up Johnson’s 47-yard touchdown run from the option, igniting a 35-0 second half rally for the Jaguars.
Jackson Memorial will try to win its second straight CJ IV title in a rematch with Brick Memorial in two weeks. The Jaguars lost 28-7 when the teams played Oct. 17 but Jackson Memorial, which was 3-3 at the time, has been a different team in recent weeks.
The Jaguars (7-4) squeezed into playoffs as the No. 7 seed in the section and started by ousting Brick in the quarterfinals.
“We came into the playoffs as a low seed and it seemed everybody was doubting us and expecting us to lose in the first round,’’ said Jared Calhoun, who turned an interception into a pick 6 with a 20-yard return in the second quarter.
Steinert had a 10-7 lead but a Gawlik touchdown followed by Calhoun’s touchdown put the game in an entirely different light by the halftime break.
“I think we got a huge lift. I think momentum-wise it was a 50-50 game until that point. We took it from there,’’ Calhoun said.
Steinert was held to seven first downs, turned the ball over on interceptions four times, and had two punts blocked, one of which was returned for a touchdown by Connor Testa.
Gawlik’s first touchdown came on a six-yard run set up by Johnson’s 40-yard run.
A fumble of a punt return and an interception thrown by Johnson helped spur the Spartans to a 10-point rally. Sophomore Jordan Morris scored on a 15-yard run after the fumble and Jordan Goodarz added a 23-yard field goal to give Steinert its only lead with 6:17 left in the second quarter.
Jackson Memorial’s defense shut the door at that point. Meanwhile, the Jaguars had no trouble getting into the end zone. That included Johnson’s two-yard touchdown pass to senior Vincent Lee in the third quarter and a one-yard scoring run by sophomore Tom Pellone to open the fourth quarter.
“We decided the 21 points we had at halftime weren’t good enough,’’ Towns said. “We believed in ourselves all season and we believed we were better than this team.’’
Jackson coach Walt Krystopik said Calhoun’s pick six showcased the senior’s value to the team as a cornerback this season.
Calhoun had been primarily the team’s placekicker and punter until this season. He was perfect on eight extra-point kicks against Steinert.
“He had some injuries early (last year) and was only able to kick and by the time he got back to being fully healthy, there were guys who had cemented themselves into their positions,’’ Krystopik said. “Now he’s a guy at the corner position who’s really good at locking down the other team’s best receiver for us. He’s been one of the solid assets for us.’’
Krystopik and the rest of the coaching staff have made a number of personnel changes this season, partly because due to voids from injuries, but Krystopik declared the tinkering completed.
“This is our Jackson team right here,’’ he said. “Things have jelled for us. We found an identity.’’
Key play: Calhoun’s pick 6 gave Steinert a strong signal that this wasn’t going to be the Spartans’ day.
Offensive game ball: Gawlik meant automatic yardage whenever he touched the ball.
Defensive game ball: Johnson at defensive back hit hard all day and his interception in the second half was also a boost.
Up next: Jackson Memorial faces Brick Memorial for the section championship in two week.