FARMINGDALE - It did not take the senior-laden Jackson Memorial boys soccer team long to temper their shock at the news that star forward Dan Russo would not be playing for the team this season and it has not taken long for the Jaguars to show that they can find ways to win without one of New Jersey's top strikers.

Once again, Jackson Memorial - the No. 4 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 - pulled out a tough win Wednesday, beating Howell on the road, 2-1, to win its fifth straight match to open the season.

Not only is Jackson Memorial adjusting to life without Russo - a first-team All-Shore forward and a University Notre Dame commit who opted to play with the New York Red Bulls Developmental Academy this fall; the Jaguars are also playing without senior central defender Ben Schnaak, who is expected to miss all of September due to a hamstring injury, according to Jackson Memorial coach Steve Bado.

Jackson Memorial senior Tyler Howlett defended by Howell senior Jared Rubman. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Jackson Memorial senior Tyler Howlett defended by Howell senior Jared Rubman. (Photo by Matt Manley)

"We still have a lot of experience," Bado said. "If you look at it, we lost our best returner in Dan Russo. Our second-best returner (Schnaak) is out with an injury, so guys have been stepping up and finding ways to win.

"We go into the game and we don't know who is going to get the game-winner, so it keeps the other team guessing. It's a change because Dan was our go-to for the last two-and-a-half years and we have had to adjust to that."

Between Russo, Schnaak and graduated center midfielder Joe Schlageter, Jackson Memorial is missing its top three scorers from last year's 15-win team, which reached a loaded Shore Conference Tournament semifinals that included three of the top five teams in the state (No. 1 Holmdel, No. 3 Christian Brothers Academy and No. 5 Ocean) and lost to No. 2 Washington Township, 2-1, in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV championship game. The Jaguars trio accounted for 38 of the team's 59 goals.

"We are having to rely on different players and so far we are doing it," senior midfielder Tyler Howlett said. "We definitely have confidence. We didn't know Dan was leaving until pretty late but still believed we could do what we set out to do. We still have quality everywhere on the field."

Despite dealing with more turnover than expected, Jackson Memorial has avoided any slip-ups early on. After bucking an early goal to beat Pinelands on opening day, surviving an overtime game against Manalapan and handling Jackson Liberty and Brick Memorial, the Jaguars fended off a challenge from the Rebels on Wednesday.

Howell was coming off a 6-0 loss at CBA on Monday and conceded a goal in the 20th minute on Wednesday. Senior outside back Chase Olejarz served a corner kick to the far side of the box, where senior center back Ron Bantang headed it to the front of the goal. Howlett tracked it down and firmly headed it in for the first strike of the game.

"I figured I had a shot to score some more goals this year," said Howlett, who has scored three goals in the first five games after scoring zero in a reserve role last year. "Drew (Walenty) is scoring goals for us. We rely on him a lot and he is doing it so far. Guys are stepping up."

Jackson Memorial remained in control for the next 29 minutes but the sun aided the Rebels in shifting the momentum. Senior Kyle Lindemann blasted a 45-yard free kick that sophomore keeper Charlie Harrison lost track of in the air. The ball cleared the Jaguars keeper and bounced into the left corner of the goal for the equalizer in the 50th minute.

"Howell played a very good game today and Pinelands and Manalapan were very good teams too," Bado said. "We've had to battle and the fact that we have won these games is encouraging. The goals we have given up have been mistakes and mistakes can be fixed."

The goal sparked Howell for the ensuing 10 minutes but Jackson Memorial cooled the Rebels off in the 62nd. Senior Gianluca Gruosso knocked a pass over to junior Drew Walenty, who beat his man and slipped the go-ahead goal to the far right side netting with exactly 18 minutes left to play.

Howell's best chance to equalize came when Lucas Newsholme hit a clean volley past Harrison but the ball bounded just wide of the left post in the 72nd. Just minutes earlier, Walenty missed just wide of the right post in a bid to put Jackson Memorial up by two goals.

Wednesday's game marks the second leg in an unforgiving four-day stretch for Howell. After losing to No. 1 CBA on Monday and No. 4 Jackson Memorial on Wednesday, the Rebels will play No. 7 Freehold Township on Thursday. Freehold Township was No. 3 to open the season, giving Howell three games against preseason top-five teams in four days.

Jackson Memorial, meanwhile, is gearing up for a tough pair of games next week. The Jaguars will host No. 2 Manasquan on Tuesday and will travel to Toms River South for a night game the following evening.

"Our expectations haven't changed," Howlett said. "We want to do more than we did last year and that means winning a championship."

Box Score

Jackson Memorial 2, Howell 1

Jackson Mem (5-0)112
Howell (1-3)011

Goals (Assists): (J) Tyler Howlett (Ron Bantang) 20', Drew Walenty (Gianluca Gruosso) 62'; (H) Kyle Lindemann 50'
Shots: Jackson Memorial, 11-7
Saves: (J) Charlie Harrison 1; (H): Andrew Paige 1

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