Jackson Memorial enters the 2016 season as the two-time defending NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV champion, and with an experienced offensive line and franchise running back Mike Gawlik returning, the Jaguars have a great chance to enter the Shore Conference record books.

The Jaguars will be looking to become just the sixth team in Shore history to win three straight NJSIAA state titles. It’s a motivating factor, for sure, but looking ahead isn’t something Jackson has the luxury of doing.

“It’s not something we focus on because we have to focus on the A South schedule,” said Jaguars head coach Walt Krystopik. “The depth and quality in A South is second to none, and you have to be at your best.”

“It motivates us because it would be the first time in school history,” said senior offensive lineman Mitch Mills. “It motivates us to come out and work hard every day.”

Jackson Memorial seniors Dan Barker (1), Mike Gawlik (8), Zack Lubertazzi (34) and Mitch Mills (68), and junior Joe Hurle (50). (Photo by Ray Richardson).

The Jaguars made a fantastic run to the program’s fifth sectional title last season, shaking off a mid-season three-game losing streak and rallying around each other after some injuries to key players. Armed with talent and the know-how of what it takes to win a championship, the Jaguars are ready for what their grueling schedule has to offer.

“We all know what it takes to be state championship-caliber team,” Mills said.

“We knew we could hang with the better teams, and our mindset going into the playoffs was we were just going to go get it,” Gawlik said.

The Jaguars multiple offense is led by Gawlik, a two-time first-team All-Shore selection who has rushed for over 2,700 yards and 38 touchdowns in his career. A three-year starter on offense and defense, he is the engine, heart and soul of the Jags.

“With Mike Gawlik back there we always have a chance,” Krystopik said.

The running game is the bread and butter of Jackson’s offense, so returning Gawlik, four of five starting offensive linemen and fullback Tom Pellone bodes very well. Mills is the left tackle with senior Larry Richardson at left guard. Senior Sean Martin started five games last year and returns at right guard. Junior Joe Hurle, an all-Class A South pick last year, is at right tackle. The only new spot is at center where senior Magnus McCaleb and junior Devin Martinez are battling for the starting position.

“We had a really young group last year, especially after Dylan Smith got hurt,” Krystopik said. “We had a full group of new blockers with the line, fullback and tight end. This year we just have to replace the tight end and center, so we’re in a much better position.”

“Being able to return four guys gave us a huge jump start,” Mills said. “When we lost (center Chris Mondello) the first day of camp last year and then Dylan got hurt we knew that instant we had to pick it up and come together quickly.”

Junior Brandon Hirsch will be the tight end while junior Justin Martin-Culet will also see time at fullback with Pellone.

The wide receivers are all new with junior Devynn Lee, senior trevor Louro and juniors A.J. Tolmachewich and Matt D’Amore.

Rounding out the offense is senior quarterback Dan Barker, who was the starter last season until an injury cut his season short. The Jaguars inserted senior Kyle Johnson from receiver, and Johnson caught fire to help the Jaguars win another state crown. One year later, Barker has the reigns of the offense again.

“He has a chip on his shoulder,” Krystopik said. “He was injured as a sophomore so last year was a big jump for him, essentially going from freshman ball to all the sudden the varsity starter. He’s much more comfortable with what we’re doing on the field.”

Barker started strong last season with nine touchdowns and only one interception, so the coaching staff is confident he can build off that.

“You can’t replace Kyle Johnson’s athleticism, but Dan has good leadership and good athleticism, too,” Krystopik said. “Everything will be there we did last year with Kyle.”

The Jaguars were the No. 7 defense in the Shore last season allowing 11 points per game. Four starters return in their 4-3 base with Richardson at defensive end and senior Phil Jenkins at defensive tackle. The nose guard is senior Jim Zapata and the other defensive end is sophomore Chance Benjamin.

Senior Zack Lubertazzi, a returning starter, will miss the beginning of the season with a leg injury, so the Jaguars will need a trio of junior linebackers to rise to the occasion until he returns. Pellone will start in the middle for Lubertazzi with Martin-Culet as the weak-side linebacker and senior Nick Tremmell and Hirsch at strong-side linebacker.

Gawlik returns as the starting strong safety where he excels in run support. He’s basically a fourth linebacker but has the speed to cover in space. Louro is the free safety along with senior Dan Kellet. The cornerbacks are Lee and senior Jordan Caldwell.

“Up front I think we’ll be okay with guys like Jenkins, Richardson and Zapata all on the field for us last year,” Krystopik said. “We need our junior linebackers to step up while Zack is recovering.”

The Class A South schedule is stacked and the Jaguars also have a tough nonconference game against Old Bridge. This group, however, has learned how to weather the storm and rebound from adversity. There’s not much you can throw at them they haven’t seen yet.

“We have a good amount of starters back and we should be in pretty good shape,” Gawlik said. “We’re all ready to go.”

RELATED: Jackson Memorial 2016 football schedule

Head Coach: Walt Krystopik, sixth season.

Career Record: 38-17.

Coaching staff: Tony Compitello (off. coord./WR); Jeff Brown (OL); Keith Anderson (RB); Tom Bradley (DL); Chris Rash (OLB); Vincent Mistretta (DB); Nicole Figaro (athletic trainer).

2015 Record: 8-4 (4-3).

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Devynn Lee, Jr., WR/DB

Before Kyle Johnson moved to quarterback he was a big-play wide receiver. Lee looks to add that element to the offense while also starting in the secondary.

X-FACTOR: Dan Barker, Sr., QB

Barker played well last season before being injured. If he can regain his form and lead an inexperienced group of receivers, the Jaguars will have a necessary complement to their power running game.

GLUE GUY: Mike Gawlik, Sr., RB/DB

Gawlik leads by example with his focus and intensity on the field, not to mention his production and clutch performances in big games.

IMPACT NEWCOMER: Justin Martin-Culet, Jr., FB/LB

The promising junior will start at linebacker and also see time at fullback, which is an underrated position of importance in Jackson’s offense.

PIVOTAL GAME: Oct. 14 vs. Toms River North

The Mariners and Jaguars look to be the top two teams in the division heading into the season, so this could very well be the game that decides the division title.

 

Football editor Bob Badders can be reached at badders@allshoremedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights. 

 

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