Jackson Memorial started the season as a question mark and ended it with an exclamation point, and a big reason was the guidance of 2014 Shore Sports Network Coach of the Year Walt Krystopik.

Usually the team that finishes ranked No. 1 in the Shore Conference at the end of the season is fairly apparent in the preseason. For the past three seasons, it was a dominant Red Bank Catholic team that went wire-to-wire as the top-ranked squad. In 2010, it was an undefeated Lacey team that started the year ranked in the top two and left no doubt by the end. The last Shore team to really make the leap was Matawan, which went 11-1 and won a state title in 2009 to finish No. 1 after going 6-4 a season earlier.

Seniors Brody Graham (left) and Brad Greenway (right) celebrate with head coach Walt Krystopik and the rest of the Jaguars as Jackson Memorial took home its first Central Jersey Group IV title since 2005. (Photo by Bill Normile)

Outside of those who have plenty of black-white-and-red clothing with Jaguar logos in their closets, no one was predicting that Jackson Memorial would finish this year standing on the top of the Shore Conference mountain, especially with a highly-regarded Brick team in their way in the division and state playoffs as well as RBC on the schedule. But when the smoke cleared after a 21-18 win over Middletown South at Rutgers University, the Jaguars were hoisting the actual trophy for the Central Jersey Group IV title and the mythical trophy as the top-ranked team in the Shore Conference for 2014.

It was a masterful job done by Krystopik and his staff given what Jackson lost to graduation coming into the season and the quality of its schedule. Krystopik now has a career record of 30-13 in four seasons at the helm for the Jaguars after this year’s 11-1 finish. He also led them to the Class A South title last year.

“I don’t think there was anybody besides the guys in the room who believed this could happen,” Krystopik. “These kids worked really hard, and I have a tremendous assistant coaching staff.”

“Even last year, no one really talked about us, and we knew we were a good football team,” said senior quarterback/defensive back Joe DeMaio. “Our senior class told each other freshman year that we were going to win a state title our senior year. We worked our butts off in the offseason, and our coaches did a great job preparing us.”

Three-quarters of the way through this season, Jackson Memorial was still sitting in the weeds, waiting to unleash a final month of football that would make the whole state sit up and take notice as Jackson ended up finishing as the top-ranked public school squad in New Jersey. The Jaguars didn’t even win their own division, as Brick handed the them their only loss of the season and claimed the Class A South crown, but they finished strong.

Coming into 2014, the Jaguars graduated 1,400-yard rusher Khani Glover, two of the Shore’s best linebackers in Ken Bradley and Vinny Celidonio, and a host of other talented seniors, so the question was whether they would even be as good as the 2013 team that won Class A South, forget finishing No. 1 in the Shore.

“I thought if Vinny Lee and Mike Gawlik, the guys replacing Khani, were able to step up and have the season they had this year, that we would have a chance,” Krystopik said.

Those two more than replaced the production of Glover, as Lee, a junior tailback, and Gawlik, a sophomore tailback, made school history by giving the Jaguars two 1,000-yard rushers in one season for the first time. They were part of a high-octane offense that averaged 35.2 points per game for the season against a challenging schedule. They set a school record with 423 points this fall, besting the mark of 403 set by the undefeated 2001 squad, one of the best teams in Shore Conference history.

The turning point came when the Jaguars shocked Non-Public Group III champion Red Bank Catholic 33-27 in overtime at home in their last game before the state playoffs began, ending the Caseys’ 40-game winning streak against Shore Conference competition dating back to 2010.

The Jaguars then avenged their lone loss by annihilating Brick 44-0 in the Central Jersey Group IV semifinals for their most lop-sided playoff win in school history and then finished the job with a 21-18 win over Middletown South in the final. It is the fourth state title overall for Jackson and the first since it went undefeated in 2005.

This season’s team showed that hard work and team cohesion, paired with up-and-coming talent and coaching, can tear up the script of what everyone thinks will happen. Guys who have been waiting their turn can sometimes be the best solution to losing talent to graduation because they have a hunger to show everyone there will not be a drop-off in results.

“You look at a guy like Cole Collins,” Krystopik said. “He had to replace Kenny Bradley not only at mike linebacker, but also as our fullback after playing tackle last year. It was a big job to be able to step into that, but he delivered.”

Collins played a crucial role in bringing home the championship by blasting a hole at fullback for a 55-yard touchdown run by Gawlik in the first quarter and then finishing the game with a diving play to help thwart Middletown South’s last-gasp pass attempt on the fake field goal play.

It concluded a season that began with the debate of whether Jackson was even a Top 10 team in the Shore. Now the only debate is where this team ranks in the pantheon of great Jackson teams considering the Jaguars will finish the season as the top-ranked public school program in New Jersey and a top-three team in the state.