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There were plenty of dark moments in the beginning, times of doubt where he wondered if it would ever come together the way he envisioned when he sat in athletic director Dave Ryden’s office over a decade ago and interviewed to become the head football coach at Marlboro High School. What kept Jason Dagato going was an unwavering belief that the Mustangs could field a championship football team once again.

The persistence of Dagato and the Marlboro football community was finally rewarded this fall when the Mustangs put together their best season in 25 years. Behind a transformative senior class, Marlboro ended several long droughts by going 8-3, claiming a share of the Shore Conference Freedom Division championship, and advancing to the NJSIAA South Jersey Group 5 sectional final.

It was a banner year for the Mustangs with their first division title since 1994, the program’s first appearance in a sectional final since 1994, the second-highest win total in a season, and the first time the program has posted three consecutive winning seasons. At the helm was Dagato, the 2023 Shore Sports Network Football Coach of the Year.

Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com
Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com
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“There’s a lot to reflect on,” Dagato said. “I always knew it would be a long-haul deal. At times it wasn’t easy and we had some rough sledding early on, but when you look back at it, three years in a row doing really well, it makes you feel like you’ve truly built a strong foundation from the ground up.”

To grasp the significance of this season requires an understanding of the history of Marlboro football. After years as a middling program that sometimes bottomed out with winless seasons, the Mustangs finally broke through in 1994 by going 10-1, winning the Class A North division title, and taking home the Central Jersey Group 4 championship. It was the highest of highs for the program, but it was a lightning bolt that dissipated just as quickly as it struck. Four straight losing seasons followed before a 6-4 season in 1999, but the program reverted to its prior ways with 21 straight losing seasons through 2020.

Dagato was hired after the 2012 season and the team went 2-8, 0-10, and 1-9 in his first three seasons. A 3-7 season isn’t much to be excited about, but it was baby steps for Marlboro with three wins each in 2016 and 2017, a 4-6 season in 2018, and another 3-7 mark in 2019. As was the case with many programs, the Covid year of 2020 wreaked havoc on the Mustangs and they took a step backward with a 1-6 campaign.

The 2020 season was a blur with a condensed schedule and health and safety protocols that limited the interaction between coaches and players. What Dagato and his staff learned was that the classes of 2023 and 2024 had the chance to change the narrative surrounding the program and take the rebuild to the next level.

“We saw a lot of juniors doing great work on JV when they were sophomores and we knew the freshman class was good even though we didn’t really get to know any of them off the field,” Dagato said. “We began identifying all these kids we thought were going to be good players for us and started to see we could keep this rolling and build the program even further.”

Marlboro went 7-3 in 2021 for its first winning season since 1999, setting the stage for another season of growth in 2022 when the Mustangs went 6-4, made their first playoff appearance since 1999 and won their first playoff game since 1994. They showed plenty of fortitude along the way after starting senior quarterback AJ Schwartz suffered a season-ending injury in Week 4 and standout junior running back Matt Cassidy was knocked out of a first-round playoff win over Washington Township. It was a senior-heavy team, however, and from the outside it looked like the brief run might be over.

It was not.

Marlboro’s 2023 season was as important as it was successful. A third straight winning season and two more playoff wins signified the program has established a winning culture that can survive the graduation of a strong senior class. It’s a testament to the years of work by Dagato, his staff, and the community.

The Mustangs began the season hot and were 5-0 after a 28-14 victory over district rival Freehold Township. They grinded out wins over St. John Vianney, Lacey, and Howell along with a 31-0 shutout victory over Southern.

“There were a lot of new starters so there were definitely some question marks,” Dagato said. “We knew the talent and ability was there but didn’t know how it would come together. We went out and played well in all of our scrimmages, then you win, then another, then another, and it starts snowballing. You’re watching the film and going, ‘I think we’re pretty good’. Probably around 3-0 you see you have something.”

The 5-0 start set up a massive Week 6 home game with Jackson Memorial, a perennial title contender with a rich championship history. The winner stood to secure at least a share of the Freedom Division championship. Led by its defense, Marlboro smothered Jackson’s high-powered rushing attack and produced an 11-2 victory that clinched the program’s first division title in 25 years.

The ride would get a bit bumpy over the next two weeks, however. The Mustangs went on the road the following week and were dealt a 24-3 loss to Rumson-Fair Haven. A week later, Middletown North upended Marlboro with a 28-21 victory in the regular-season finale that denied Marlboro the outright division title and forced the Mustangs to share the championship with Jackson.

Marlboro earned the No. 3 seed for the South Jersey Group 5 playoffs and needed to regroup after losing two games in a row entering the postseason.

“It was such a high point. You beat Jackson and you’re on top of the world, first division title since 1994,” Dagato said. “Next week versus Rumson it didn’t go our way and we lost our starting quarterback for the next game versus Middletown North. The next guy goes in and plays well and we fight our butts off but come out on the wrong end.”

Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com
Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com
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Dagato reminded his players to remember what got them there.

“The playoffs were starting and I said, ‘it’s 0-0 now, the end of one season and the start of a new season’. We were 6-2 in the regular season and won a division title and that’s great, but I challenged them to have an August 7th mentality. You show up and you’re jacked up for the football season flying around, locked in, and focused. I challenged the kids that week to have that mentality again.”

The Mustangs answered the call in the first round with a 26-16 win over South Brunswick. Cassidy ran for 129 yards and three touchdowns and made 13 tackles on defense and senior quarterback Brayden Klein threw a touchdown pass to senior Mike Consolazio. Marlboro traveled to second-seeded Hillsborough for the semifinals and won 12-0 to punch its ticket to its first sectional final since 1994. The defense was incredible in pitching a shutout, holding Hillsborough to 224 yards of offense, and forcing six turnovers, including three interceptions by junior cornerback Luke Houston. Senior Luke Rubin kicked a pair of field goals and Klein threw a touchdown pass to senior Sam Hirsch.

Marlboro’s opponent in the sectional final was Cherokee, a South Jersey stalwart that entered the game with 11 sectional championships in its history. The teams played to a 6-6 draw in regulation with Rubin’s 30-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter sending the game to overtime. The ending was not of the storybook variety as Cherokee emerged with a 19-13 victory in double overtime to end Marlboro’s dream season.

“It’s always disappointing when you don’t come out with a win,” Dagato said. “It’s also crazy that in the blink of an eye your season is done. You’re on this emotional roller coaster and the minute that kid crosses the goal line, bang, it’s done. I feel like the statement is that we belonged there. That game could have gone either way and if we play 10 times it’s a 50/50 split. We absolutely deserved to be playing for a championship and we didn’t just show up happy to be there.”

It was that way because the players bought into the culture Dagato had been trying to instill in the program. They were self-driven, hard-working, and focused on accomplishing all they believed they could regardless of the program’s past.

“These kids took preparation seriously and really enjoyed the work that was put in during practice,” Dagato said. “We were joyfully deliberate and we earned the right to have fun in practice. They held themselves accountable and you didn’t have to go crazy in practice, you could just teach. It really created some strong bonds that I think will last a lifetime around here.”

Once again Marlboro will graduate a great senior class that includes All-Shore selections Cassidy, Consolazio, Rubin, defensive back Nick Scaff, offensive lineman John Moskowich, and defensive lineman Robert Kenyon, plus Klein, standout linebacker Anthony Tropeano, and leading receiver Sam Hirsch, among others. If this season told us anything, it’s that Marlboro should not be overlooked.

“Some graduating classes have come and gone and the program has still moved forward,” Dagato said. “Establishing that solid foundation is something that everyone involved here is really proud of. It doesn’t feel like a one-year thing, it’s truly a program with expectations.”

 

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