*Photo gallery by Bill Normile*

PISCATAWAY - Jackson Memorial started the season as a question mark and ended it with an exclamation point.

Usually the team that finishes ranked No. 1 in the Shore Conference at the end of the season is fairly apparent in the preseason. For the past three seasons, it was a dominant Red Bank Catholic team that went wire-to-wire as the top-ranked squad. In 2010, it was an undefeated Lacey team that started the year ranked in the top two and left no doubt by the end. The last Shore team to really make the leap was Matawan, which went 11-1 and won a state title in 2009 to finish No. 1 after going 6-4 a season earlier.

Seniors Brody Graham (left) and Brad Greenway (right) celebrate with head coach Walt Krystopik and the rest of the Jaguars as Jackson Memorial took home its first Central Jersey Group IV title since 2005. (Photo by Bill Normile)

Outside of those who have plenty of black-white-and-red clothing with Jaguar logos in their closets, no one was predicting that Jackson Memorial would finish this year standing on the top of the Shore Conference mountain, especially with a highly-regarded Brick team in their way in the division and state playoffs as well as RBC on the schedule. But when the smoke cleared after a 21-18 win over Middletown South on Saturday night at Rutgers University, the Jaguars were hoisting the actual trophy for the Central Jersey Group IV title and the mythical trophy as the top-ranked team in the Shore Conference for 2014.

"I don't think there was anybody besides the guys in the room who believed this could happen,'' said Jackson Memorial coach Walt Krystopik.

"Even last year, no one really talked about us, and we knew we were a good football team,'' said senior quarterback/defensive back Joe DeMaio. "Our senior class told each other freshman year that we were going to win a state title our senior year. We worked our butts off in the offseason."

Three-quarters of the way through this season, Jackson Memorial was still sitting in the weeds, waiting to unleash a final month of football that would make the whole state sit up and take notice. The Jaguars didn't even win their own division, as Brick handed the them their only loss of the season and claimed the Class A South crown.

"We knew that we could be a great team,'' said senior tight end/defensive end Brody Graham. "We just had to push ourselves and put in the time."

The Jaguars graduated 1,400-yard rusher Khani Glover, two of the Shore's best linebackers in Ken Bradley and Vinny Celidonio, and a host of other talented seniors, so the question was whether they would even be as good as the 2013 team that won Class A South, forget finishing No. 1 in the Shore.

Senior Brody Graham and a hard-hitting Jackson Memorial defense came up with key stops down the stretch to hold on for a 21-18 win over Middletown South to claim the Central Jersey Group IV championship. (Photo by Bill Normile)

"I thought if Vinny Lee and Mike Gawlik, the guys replacing Khani, were able to step up and have the season they had this year, that we would have a chance,'' Krystopik said.

Those two more than replaced the production of Glover, as Lee, a junior tailback, and Gawlik, a sophomore tailback, made school history by giving the Jaguars two 1,000-yard rushers in one season for the first time. They were part of a high-octane offense that averaged 35.2 points per game for the season against a challenging schedule. They set a school record with 423 points this fall, besting the mark of 403 set by the undefeated 2001 squad, one of the best teams in Shore Conference history.

The turning point came when the Jaguars shocked Red Bank Catholic 33-27 in overtime at home in their last game before the state playoffs began, ending the Caseys' 40-game winning streak against Shore Conference competition dating back to 2010. RBC will play for the Non-Public Group III title on Sunday after shelling three-time defending state champion St. Joseph's-Montvale 44-14 in the semifinals.

In addition to having a host of talent, the Jaguars had an us-against-the-world mentality where they backed down to no one, including an RBC team that had run roughshod over the local competition for three-plus years.

"You can say this team has a set of balls,'' DeMaio said. "We get backed to the wall and we never give up."

The Jaguars then avenged their lone loss by annihilating Brick 44-0 in the Central Jersey Group IV semifinals for their most lop-sided playoff win in school history. All that was left was a formidable Middletown South team playing in its 11th state final in the last 14 years. Jackson jumped out to a quick 21-3 lead and then held on for dear life as the game came down to a fake field goal play in the final seconds. The Jaguars came up with the stop and cemented their place among the great teams in Jackson history.

Unlike this year's group, Jackson's three other state championship teams were apparent from the get-go. The teams that went undefeated in 2000 and 2001 were juggernauts ranked at the top of the Shore and the state almost the whole way. The 2005 team had reached the state finals a year earlier and lost, and the only reason that group didn't finish No. 1 in the Shore is because Middletown South also went undefeated for the third straight season behind some kid named Knowshon Moreno.

History means a lot at Jackson Memorial, and trying to live up to those teams of the past is a yearly motivator no matter what the expectations are from the media or Shore fans.

"We haven't been this highly-ranked since '05, one of the greatest teams to ever come out of Jackson,'' said senior linebacker Zach Tetro. "We just look up to them and want to match their accomplishments and break their records."

"The last time we were here in 2005, to be able to bring this back to this town, it's just a great feeling,'' said DeMaio, whose hand will now be sporting two rings, as he was part of the baseball team that won a Group IV title last spring.

This season's team showed that hard work and team cohesion, paired with up-and-coming talent, can tear up the script of what everyone thinks will happen. Guys who have been waiting their turn can sometimes be the best solution to losing talent to graduation because they have a hunger to show everyone there will not be a drop-off in results.

"You look at a guy like Cole Collins,'' Krystopik said. "He had to replace Kenny Bradley not only at mike linebacker, but also as our fullback after playing tackle last year. It was a big job to be able to step into that, but he delivered."

Collins played a crucial role in bringing home the championship on Saturday by blasting a hole at fullback for a 55-yard touchdown run by Gawlik in the first quarter and then finishing the game with a diving play to help thwart Middletown South's last-gasp pass attempt on the fake field goal play.

It concluded a season that began with the debate of whether Jackson was even a Top 10 team in the Shore. Now the only debate is where this team ranks in the pantheon of great Jackson teams considering it will most likely finish ranked no worse than No. 3 in the state. The Jaguars accepted all challenges this season, but the one they won't take is answering if they were better than the teams from 2000-01 and 2005.

"I'm not going to say anything there,'' Graham said before laughing. "But I think we're up there."