JACKSON TWP. - There is not much difference between last year's Jackson Memorial boys soccer team and this year's squad and as of the second week of October, that is exactly the way the Jaguars want it.

In two weeks from Wednesday, that's when the Jaguars would like the differences to begin to show.

For the second straight season, Jackson Memorial - the No. 3 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 - is the Shore Conference Class A South champion after handling No. 8 Toms River North, 5-1, Tuesday behind senior midfielder Joe Schlageter's hat trick.

The Jaguars are in line to secure either the No. 2 or No. 3 seed when the Shore Conference Tournament is seeded on Wednesday, which would be similar to last year when Jackson Memorial was the No. 3 seed after winning Class A South with all but three starters from this year's team contributing.

"We only had two senior starters last year, so we knew coming into this year, it was going to be pretty much the same team as last year," Schlageter said. "The difference this year is we have so many different guys who are finishing goals. Everyone just got a lot better as players and as a team."

Where the Jackson Memorial returnees hope to veer off the path laid by last year's team is in the SCT semifinals, which was the round in which Jackson Memorial bowed out last year. Like every other team in the tournament, the Jaguars had no answer for Holmdel and lost to the eventual champions, 4-0.

This time around, Holmdel will again, in all likelihood, be the top seed and could enter the tournament undefeated, but not as the juggernaut the Hornets were last year when they finished with a 122-14 goal-differential. This season, it is Jackson that will enter the SCT with the best goal-differential in the conference at 46-8 in 12 games, edging out Holmdel's 35-4 in 11.

"It doesn't really feel different going into the tournament this year," junior forward and leading scorer Dan Russo said. "We were obviously younger last year but we thought we would do well in the tournament and we just ran into a really good team that had more talent and more experience. I think we're a better team this year and I think that's showed in our goals scored and against and our record."

The Jaguars' explosive attack and airtight defense were on display Tuesday against Toms River North, the only team with a chance to dethrone Jackson as outright A South champion. Schlageter was the star on Tuesday, recording his hat trick within the first 44 minutes, which he secured with a penalty kick exactly 44 minutes in after sophomore Drew Walenty was tripped up in the 18-yard box.

Schlageter opened the scoring in the 10th minute when he poked in a rebound off an initial shot by Russo that dropped right in front of the goal, where Schlageter positioned himself for the easy finish.

The second of the three Schlageter goals was the most aesthetically appealing. Senior Ben Patti beat the defense along the right flanked and centered a cross that Schlageter volleyed out of the air with the outside of his right foot and into the goal in the 38th minute.

Russo got into the act in the 50th with his 13th goal of the season off a chip from Patti sprung him loose. Russo added hit 14th of the year on a similar ball from junior Gianluca Gruosso in the 67th, which extended Jackson's lead to 5-0.

Junior Justin Carfano headed in a corner kick from senior John Psaradakis in the 78th to break up Jackson Memorial's shutout bid.

Jackson suffered its first and only loss of the season last Wednesday at Southern in a 1-0 nail-biter. The Jaguars have since responded with a come-from behind win over Freehold Township and a convincing one over the Mariners on Tuesday.

"After the loss, coach (Steve Bado) told us if we were going to lose, that was the time to lose," Schlageter said. "Of course, we didn't want to lose at all, but it was definitely a good learning experience and I think it's only going to make us that much tougher going forward."

It has been 26 years since Jackson Memorial won a Shore Conference Tournament title and that 1992 championship was the fourth consecutive and sixth in seven years won by the Jaguars. This Jackson Memorial squad is also trying to become the first Ocean County team to win the conference tournament title since Toms River North in 2005.

During head coach Steve Bado's previous 13 seasons, the Jaguars have been to the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals four times but have yet to reach a championship game. The Jaguars lost to Toms River East in 2006, Manalapan in 2007 and Holmdel in both 2012 and 2017. The Jaguars were the No. 3 seed for three of those runs and were No. 1 in 2012.

"Even though our run got cut off last year, I think it was a great learning experience for us," Russo said. "We know what it's like and we are a lot hungrier this year, so we think we have a pretty good chance to win it this time."


More From Shore Sports Network