JACKSON TWP. - For the first month of the 2019 season, the Jackson Memorial boys soccer turned out win after win despite losing key starters for a variety of reasons.

Now that the NJSIAA Tournament is two rounds deep, all of a sudden, Jackson Memorial has seen its luck turn around and is now two wins away from a championship that narrowly avoided the Jaguars last season.

As far as the Jackson Memorial players are concerned, now that they are healthy, two wins won't be enough.

After handling Southern, 3-0, on Friday afternoon, Jackson Memorial - the No. 4 seed in the South Jersey Group IV bracket - finds itself in position to finish off what it fell just short of achieving last year: winning the program's first sectional title since 1992.

After disposing of one Shore Conference Class A South rival Friday in impressive fashion, the Jaguars will host another in the sectional semifinals on Tuesday. After stunning top-seeded Clearview in the first round and No. 8 Cherry Hill East on Friday, No. 16 Toms River North will pay a visit to Jackson Memorial with a spot in the championship game on the line.

Jackson Memorial senior Connor Lucas. (Photo by Paula Lopez)
Jackson Memorial senior Connor Lucas. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

"I don't look at it like we are two wins away," Schnaak said. "I look at it like we are four wins away. We felt like we had a chance to do it last year and the team we lost to (Washington Township) went on to win it all (the Group IV title). We played all year with guys injured, with started the year losing Dan Russo and through it all, we have just kept winning. Now we're healthy, we're motivated and we feel like we are as dangerous as anybody."

Jackson Memorial and Toms River North met on Oct. 21 in Toms River, with Jackson rallying for a 3-2 win and Schnaak scoring the game-winner in the 74th minute. The Jaguars had already locked up the Class A South championship prior to that game but the win secured a perfect 7-0 mark in divisional play.

Schnaak - a Shore Sports Network Second-Team All-Shore defender as a junior - is one of several key Jackson Memorial players to miss time due to injury this season. Schnaak missed a month of action due to a hamstring injury and was limited upon his return before rounding into form over the last two weeks. Fellow senior defender Ron Bantang also missed time with an ankle injury and brothers Evan and Drew Walenty - the latter of whom leads the team in goal-scoring - were hobbled last week.

"I'm feeling close to 100 percent," Schnaak said. "My hamstring is not the issue, it's more just getting my fitness. I'm used to playing all-year round so getting back to where I feel like I can run for a whole game has taken a little while. Two be able to score three goals with two assists while still trying to get my legs is encouraging."

All of the injuries added to the challenge of replacing Notre Dame commit Dan Russo, who opted to play with the New York Red Bulls Academy this season but has provided moral support throughout the season, including on Friday against Southern.

Schnaak did not score on Friday against Southern but flicked a header that set up classmate Tyler Howlett's goal that opened the scoring in the 13th minute.

The 13th-minute goal came off a throw-in by junior Zack Rogacki and was the first of three Jackson Memorial goals that came off throw-ins or set pieces. Each of the three goals was scored by a senior and involved a defender on either the assist or the finish.

"Most of our goals this year have come on those set pieces where it's just a battle in the box," Howlett said. "We pride ourselves on winning those 50-50 balls and balls in the air so anytime there is a set piece, we feel like we have an advantage."

Jackson Memorial extended its lead to 2-0 in the 58th when Gianluca Gruosso one-timed a free kick by center back Frank Savarese out of the air and into the goal. Fewer than three-minutes later, Connor Lucas swung a free kick from 35 yards out that bounced over goalkeeper Kayce Bennet and in for a 3-0 lead.

Lucas also led the man-marking effort against 18-goal scorer and Southern junior Kevin Kiernan, who went scoreless in both matches at Jackson Memorial this season.

Jackson Memorial fell to Washington Township in last year's South Jersey IV final, with Schnaak scoring the lone goal in the 2-1 loss to the five-time defending sectional champion. Washington will play at No. 2 Egg Harbor in the other semifinal and should the Jaguars and Minutemen meet for a second straight year in the sectional final, Jackson Memorial would be the home team. The Jaguars last hosted a sectional final in 2012, when they lost to Monroe in the Central Group IV title game.

"I think having so many seniors this year makes a big difference," Schnaak said. "We had some good ones last year but we were still mostly juniors and that extra year makes a big difference, especially having played in a championship game already."