Cardiac Cats: Jackson Memorial rallies past Toms River East to reach Central Group 4 final
JACKSON TOWNSHIP – Down by two touchdowns in the first half and trailing by eight entering the fourth quarter, Jackson Memorial’s season was on the brink.
At the beginning of the season, the early deficit would have been too much to overcome, but the playoffs at Jack Munley Field are something different altogether. This time, the Jaguars had no doubt they would somehow, someway, find a way to win the game.
A pair of touchdowns in the final five minutes, including the go-ahead 19-yard touchdown run by senior quarterback Lonnie Cebulski with 42 seconds left in regulation, delivered host Jackson a thrilling 27-21 comeback win over Toms River East in the NJSIAA Central, Group 4 semifinals on Friday night.
A 5-yard touchdown run by junior running back Will Towns followed by a successful 2-point conversion pass from Cebulski to senior Jake McKown tied the score at 21 with 4:44 left in the game. Then, with under a minute to play, sophomore Justin Hirsch recovered a fumble at the 19-yard line when Toms River East muffed a punt. On the next play, Cebulski took it himself on a read-option and scored the winning touchdown to send Jackson to its first sectional final since 2015.
Jackson Memorial will travel to face top-seeded Hammonton on Friday, Nov. 22 in the Central, Group 4 championship game. Hammonton defeated Middletown South, 32-29, in the other semifinal game.
“At the beginning of the season against Wall and Mater Dei when we were up against tough times like we were in the first half tonight, we broke,” Cebulski said. “But as the season evolved and we worked harder and harder we grew in heart. We bonded together and it shows on nights like this.”
Cebulski was great from late in the second quarter on and finished with 114 yards rushing and two touchdowns plus 88 yards passing and one touchdown plus the critical 2-point conversion pass. Towns rushed for 54 yards and a touchdown and also caught a 12-yard touchdown pass for Jackson (8-2).
Those efforts were needed to overcome a sensational performance by Toms River East senior quarterback Mike Goodall, who gashed Jackson’s defense for 178 yards rushing and two touchdowns. Toms River East (9-2) also received a 22-yard touchdown pass from junior Nick Totten to senior wide receiver Riley Engelhard on a wide receiver reverse pass.
After a scoreless first quarter that included Toms River East stopping Jackson on downs at the 18-yard line, the Raiders broke through five minutes into the second quarter with a six-play, 84-yard drive to take a 7-0 lead. After gaining zero yards on his first six carries, Goodall faked a handoff and zoomed 57 yards down to the Jackson 20-yard line. Three plays later on third-and-12 from the 22-yard line, the Raiders went deep into the playbook. Totten looped around and took a flip from Goodall on a wide receiver reverse, and after avoiding tacklers in the backfield, found a wide-open Engelhard in the front of the end zone for the touchdown. Nick Costa’s extra point made it 7-0 with 8:35 with left in the half.
Senior linebacker Frankie Giannetti swatted down a third-down pass at the line of scrimmage on the next series to force a Jackson punt, and on the next possession, Toms River East would extend its lead to 14-0. Starting at their own 23, the Raiders moved to the 42-yard line where on a third-and-5, Goodall busted loose for a 58-yard touchdown run and a 14-0 lead with 2:44 left in the first half.
Not much was going right for Jackson at this point. After slowing down the Raiders’ ground attack early, the Jaguars now had no answer for Goodall, who was up to 125 yards rushing. On the other side of the ball, the Jaguars offense had gained just 57 yards.
Everything changed for Jackson on the final drive of the first half, however. The Jaguars went to a read-option look and with Toms River East’s eyes squarely on Towns, Cebulski took full advantage. Starting at the 27-yard line, Cebulski carried on three straight plays to get the ball to the East 43-yard line. An offsides penalty and a 12-yard completion to junior tight end Jaden Persichilli put the ball at the 26-yard line and an 11-yard run by Cebulski made it first-and-goal from the 9-yard line. Three plays later Cebulski was in the end zone on a 1-yard plunge with 12 seconds left in the half to get Jackson on the board and cut Toms River East’s lead to 14-7.
“That was a huge confidence-booster going into the half,” Cebulski said. “We knew we were getting the ball coming out of the half and I think the tide turned after that.”
“You saw what we did at the end of the half where he took control and made all the right reads,” Jackson Memorial head coach Vinny Mistretta said of Cebulski. “From the end of the second quarter on he was unstoppable.”
It was more of the same in the second half, beginning with the first play of the third quarter when Cebulski gained 32 yards on another quarterback keeper down to the East 30-yard line. A holding penalty against East helped move the ball to the 14-yard line and two plays later Cebulski connected with Towns in the front corner of the end zone for a 12-yard touchdown. The extra point failed, however, so Toms River East remained in front, 14-13, with 8:30 left in the third quarter.
The Raiders had not run an offensive play since scoring with 2:44 left in the first half, but they picked up right where they left off to answer Jackson’s consecutive scores. Starting at midfield after Jackson squibbed the kickoff, Toms River East ran six straight rushing plays to get into the end zone and extend its lead to 21-13. On third-and-7 from the 35-yard line, Goodall escaped pressure in the backfield and scrambled for a 15-yard gain. On the next play, he ripped off a 20-yard touchdown run for an eight-point advantage with 4:35 left in the third quarter.
Jackson went three-and-out on its next possession, making the next defensive series dire. This is where Jackson’s defense was able to shake off its prior struggles and come through with three straight clutch series to enable its offense to mount a comeback.
Jackson forced East to punt from its own 15-yard line and the kick was short and set to give Jackson good field position, but a Jackson player tried to field the ball and fumbled it. Toms River East recovered at the 40-yard line. It could have been a devastating turn of events for the Jags, but the defense did not allow a first down and forced another punt to give the offense the ball back with 9:12 left in regulation.
“That’s been the thing this year that’s been different, we haven’t been lights out but in big moments this defense has made plays,” Mistretta said. “We know we’re as talented as anybody on that side of the ball and it says a lot about the character and heart and guts that defense has.”
“They were showing some looks we haven’t seen on film but we went on the board at the half and got the plays down,” said senior defensive end Sean Laverty. “At first we weren’t getting to our landmarks but in the second half we got there and were able to stop them.”
Taking over at its own 21-yard line, Jackson drove for the tying score with an eight-play, 79-yard march. The Jaguars’ biggest offensive play of the night came on a must-have third-and-11 from their own 20-yard line. Cebulski dropped back and saw senior Zack Novak about to break free on a post and hit him for a 46-yard gain to the East 34-yard line.
“Earlier in the game we had him on another post and the ball slipped out of my hands, so when I dropped back and saw him start to get open I was like, ‘I have to make this throw, the game’s on the line’,” Cebulski said.
Junior running back Jabari Lofton followed with a 16-yard run down to the 18-yard line and three plays later Towns converted a third-and-5 to the 5-yard line. On the next play, Towns scored on a 5-yard run to make it 21-19. The Jaguars had to go for two and successfully converted when Cebulski rolled to his left and hit McKown in the back corner of the end zone to tie the game at 21 with just under five minutes to play.
Jackson stopped East on three straight plays to get the ball back with 2:25 left in the game but the Raiders defense had a response of its own to force a three-and-out. The Raiders were set to get the ball back with under one minute left in the game but a booming punt by McKown twisted the Toms River East punt returner and he fumbled inside the 20-yard line where three Jaguars converged and Hirsch recovered.
It was a huge break for the Jaguars, but they still had to make something of it. Cebulski kept it himself on first down and ran for the 19-yard score to give Jackson a 27-21 lead with 42 seconds left.
“When I got the play call I knew it had been working all game and I had full confidence,” Cebulski said. “I made my read and they all followed Towns so I just cut back and there was a huge hole.”
“Guys are going to key on Will and designate eight guys on defense to stop him, and rightfully so,” Mistretta said. “But Lonnie Cebulski is not someone you can ignore. He’s made big plays against Rumson, against Wall, against St. John Vianney. We have no doubt Lonnie can make the right reads and big plays.”
Jackson has now won seven games in a row following a 1-2 start. The Jags hope the momentum carries over to next Friday when they’ll face a 9-2 Hammonton team that beat two Shore Conference teams, Brick and Middletown South, to reach the final. Like Jackson, the Blue Devils will be attempting to secure the program’s sixth sectional championship.
“They’re going to be tough,” Mistretta said. “They play a crazy good schedule and we know South Jersey football is the real deal. It’s going to be Central vs. South, two powers, so we’re excited. Hopefully we can get the job done and bring another championship home.”
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