Clutch Cats: Jackson Memorial Comes up Big to Take Down Brick Memorial in CJ-IV
BRICK TOWNSHIP — In winning the program’s 23rd playoff game in history and advancing to a sectional semifinal for the fifth straight season, Jackson Memorial turned in a classic performance on Friday night against Brick Memorial.
It wasn’t a dramatic ending or an overwhelming individual performance that made it a vintage victory, but instead, it was the unbelievable number of clutch plays the Jaguars came up with to make it a night to remember.
Seventh-seeded Jackson converted on four fourth downs and three third downs with greater than 10 yards to gain, including two touchdown passes, to take down second-seeded Brick Memorial, 22-14, in the opening round of the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV playoffs at DiFabio Field.
Senior quarterback A.J. Tolmachewich threw touchdown passes to senior wide receiver Matt D’Amore and senior tight end Brandon Hirsch, and junior running back Leo Shimonovich ran for a 52-yard touchdown to send the Jaguars (6-4) into the semifinals against third-seeded Long Branch (7-2).
“Throughout the years we’ve had some players that can do that, and you don't win playoff games without kids who can do things outside the realm of the scheme,” said Jackson Memorial head coach Vin Mistretta. “A.J. did a great job making plays above and beyond, (fullback) Tom Pellone had a couple real hard hustle plays and defensively we did some big things in clutch situations. You need a group of guys - you can’t have just one - to go above and beyond what you ask them to do in practice every day.”
Shimonovich finished with a game-high 102 yards rushing on 16 carries while Tolmachewich was 5-for-10 for 97 yards and two scores. He connected with D’Amore on a 21-yard touchdown pass on a fourth-and-10 and found Hirsch for a 20-yard touchdown on a third-and-12.
Junior linebacker Chance Benjamin had a key sack late in the game and also had a tackle for a loss while Joe Hurle and Dylan Cook combined on a sack and Hunter Rose recovered a fumble to lead Jackson's defense.
It all added up to Jackson turned the tables on their Class A South rival after losing, 27-21, in the regular-season finale last week.
“We knew after the first game we had to make the big plays to win this game, and taking a 15-0 lead into halftime was really what we needed,” Tolmachewich said.
With the win, Jackson improved to 13-1 all-time against Shore Conference teams in the playoffs, accoring to Jackson Memorial historian Jim Colbert.
Jackson drove all the way to the Brick Memorial 7-yard line on the game’s opening possession, but a penalty on first down contributed to the drive stalling and the Jags coming away with no points after a field goal attempt into the wind fell short. The missed opportunity did little to dissuade the Jaguars, however.
After forcing a Brick Memorial punt, the Jaguars needed just four plays to get into the end zone. After a 14-yard catch by Joe Maffei on second-and-17, Shimonovich broke free down the home sideline for a 52-yard touchdown that gave Jackson a 7-0 lead.
“That’s just the resiliency of our offense,” Tolmachewich said. “We know we’re not going to score on every drive, but we knew we beat them up on that first drive and we had them. Second drive, third drive, fourth drive, we knew we were going to get them.”
“We pick each other up, and the defense went out there and got us the ball back and we were able to go down and score on that second drive,” Mistretta said.
Senior Blaine Netterman returned the ensuing kickoff to the Jackson Memorial 36-yard line to give the Mustangs great field position, but Jackson’s defense came through with a critical turnover when Brick Memorial junior quarterback Tyler Sindel lost the ball and Rose recovered at the 34-yard line.
“It’s about time one of these triple-option teams put the ball on the ground against us,” Mistretta said. “Last week they were so clean and ran it to perfection. We knew tonight it was going to be cold and the ball was going to be slick, but we weren’t really counting on (a fumble) but we were hoping to maybe get one or two.”
The Jaguars then embarked on a game-defining 15-play, 66-yard scoring drive to take a 15-0 lead with 1:59 left in the first half. The Jaguars’ epic drive saw them convert three fourth downs and a third-and-19 and ended with Tolmachewich’s touchdown pass to D’Amore. The first big play of the drive came when Tolmachewich and Hirsch hooked up on a 24-yard pass play on third-and-19. Then on fourth-and-3, John Ghigna completed a fake-punt pass to Christian Pellone for a 10-yard gain down to the Brick Memorial 34-yard line. A 6-yard run by Stephen Rodriguez converted a fourth-and-6 and set up the touchdown. Tolmachewich added the 2-point conversion run to make it 15-0.
Brick Memorial received to begin the second half and scored quickly as Sindel busted loose on a 64-yard touchdown run to make it 15-7 with 10:26 left in the third quarter.
The teams traded punts on four consecutive possessions before Jackson took a two-score lead early in the fourth quarter. Starting at midfield, Pellone had a 9-yard run before Tolmachewich took a keeper 22 yards down to the Brick Memorial 18-yard line. After two hits for a loss by Brick Memorial, Tolmachewich saw an open Hirsch over the middle and threaded him a pass for a 20-yard touchdown on third-and-12, giving Jackson a 22-7 lead after Justin Burkert’s extra point.
Brick Memorial then went 80 yards in 11 plays to make pull within eight points. Senior fullback Tony Thorpe had a 27-yard run to put the ball into Jackson territory and finished off the drive with a 3-yard touchdown run with 6:25 left.
Jackson appeared to have clinched the win when Shimonovich ran for six yards to gain a first down at the Brick Memorial 31-yard line with 1:32 left, but a fumble on the next play was recovered by Thorpe to give the Mustangs life.
Jackson’s defense came through with two more big-time plays to close out the victory as Benjamin dropped Sindel for a 9-yard loss to bring up fourth-and-13, and sophomore defensive end Colin McCarthy deflected Netterman’s halfback option pass to force a turnover on downs.
“We have a lot of special players and talent all over the field, so we have trust in our passing game, running game, defense,” Benjamin said. “Whatever we have to do.”
When the season started it was difficult to figure out what the Jaguars would become in 2017. They had graduated all-time leading rusher Mike Gawlik, and it looked like it could be a rebuilding year by their standards. They’ve proven they’re still a program to be reckoned with, and that no matter who graduates, Jackson Memorial will never be lacking an identity.
“Most of the season no one was talking about us and people were doubting us,” Benjamin said. “We always have faith in our team and we believe in what we’re all about.
Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.