Wedged inside the school gym for an August practice due to inclement weather, Jackson Memorial looked like an infantry stuffed into a broom closet.

Cozy confines might be one of the few things that cramp the Jaguars’ style. And, it’s not just the volume of players competing for roster spots that has second-year head coach Vin Mistretta brimming with enthusiasm, but the layers of talent that will be keeping he and his staff busy juggling a stockpiled depth chart bursting with gifts of versatility.

“The amount of kids we have back and the competition at nearly every position is really allowing us to go back to the way things were when I played here,” said Mistretta, a wide receiver and defensive back for the Jags and a key figure in the 2005 squad’s 12-0 showing that culminated with a Central Jersey Group IV championship in his senior year. “Every single day, if you don’t show up ready to go, there are three guys behind you who are varsity-level players that can step up. It’s pushing our kids. We’ve talked about competition… compete, compete, compete. You’re being evaluated every single day.”

Jackson Memorial means business this fall and will conduct it in a manner steep with brute force, grit and deceptive speed. With seven returning starters on each side of the ball, it’s clear this group will be formidable in its designs for a Constitution Division crown and a deep run in the postseason.

A defense that pitched two shutouts and surrendered 14.2 points per game last fall will play fast and fierce. The unit’s top four tacklers from a year ago – senior safety John Ghigna (108 tackles, four interceptions), 6-foot-6, 220-pound junior defensive end Collin McCarthy (82 tackles, five sacks), senior linebacker Chance Benjamin (82 tackles, seven sacks) and junior linebacker Nic Ford (78 tackles, two sacks) – are back to form a bonded nucleus within a 4-3 scheme and each embraces the responsibility of establishing a punishing, physical tone through action.

Sophomore Jaden Perischilli and senior Kole Kalinauskas will be greeting runners inside at the defensive tackles with seniors Hunter Rose and Jack Ford, along with junior Sean Laverty, strengthening the pool opposite McCarthy on the edge.

Benjamin and Nic Ford possess keen instincts, clear vision and the passion for pursuit at linebacker. Whether flying off the corners in pass rush, holding their ground against the run or covering the field tracking the football, each delivers a message with stinging contact that warns neither is to be tested. Senior Joe Maffei looks to embody those traits on the outside while junior Christian Pellone adds length to the linebacking corps and a flexibility to drop into coverage as a nickel.

Jackson Memorial Football (Photo by Paula Lopez)
From left to right: Leo Shimonovich, Hunter Rose, John Ghigna, Joe Maffei and Collin McCarthy of Jackson Memorial (Photo by Paula Lopez)

The secondary is filled with playmakers. Seniors Chris Richardson, Leo Shimonovich, Tyler Brito, Steven Vigliarolo and Ghigna team with multi-talented sophomores Wally Doman and Will Towns to marshal the passing lanes and lend support against the run.

Considering how many assets are available, Mistretta is trying to limit the necessity for two-way players but harbors the knowledge that, when a game is hanging in the balance, he can lean on proven commodities to be the difference.

The Jaguars will impose their offensive will behind a bruising run game paced by the rugged tandem of Shimonovich (170 carries for 838 yards, seven TDs) and Rodriguez (97 carries for 381 yards, four TDs). Powering through the gaps blasted by senior center Sean Sharo (5-9, 215 pounds), tackles McCarthy (6-6, 220) and Laverty (6-4, 250), guards Jerry Russell (5-10, 195), Eric Vilacoba (5-10, 220) and Antonio Farias (5-8, 255) along with Maffei (6-3, 195) at tight end, Shimonovich, Rodriguez and Towns anxiously await to unveil their prowess out of the multiple-I.

Nic Ford, Rose and junior Mike Fiore will be their lead escorts, rotating at fullback, always an underappreciated yet vital role for the Jags.

“It’s Jackson Memorial…we have to run the football,” Shimonovich said of upholding the program’s tradition. “Our offensive line is unified and we’re all looking forward to running behind them.”

How well the Jaguars move the ball on the ground should make the transition to quarterback a bit easier for Ghigna, who assumes the void left by A.J. Tolmachewich. Ghigna will handle the role with a unique perspective, a former signal caller whose acumen has only been enhanced by the vast knowledge of the passing game acquired while defending against it as one of the Shore’s top coverage safeties.

While the Jags plan to be run-oriented, don’t overlook Ghigna’s ability to put the ball in the air. An instinctual decision maker with a unique outlook, he reacts to situations with heady choices summoned from the gut.

Ghigna has developed a rapport with a gifted assembly of wide receivers. Pellone, Vigliarolo, Richardson, Doman, juniors Jake McKown and Zack Novak and senior Nick Tolmachewich exemplify the wealth of options he can seek when he looks to air it out.

“Having two beasts in the backfield, a big offensive line and skill on the perimeters is going to help me out,” said Ghigna. “I’ve been working a lot with the wide receivers. We have a lot of kids who can get the job done.”

Junior Justin Burkert returns at kicker where he converted 21 of 22 extra points and booted three field goals and McKown is back to handle punts, which he unloaded on an average of 35.6 yards.

At a Glance

Head coach: Vin Mistretta, second season

Career record: 6-5

2017 record: 6-5 (4-3)

Offense: Multiple I

Defense: 4-3

Coaching staff: Keith Anderson (off. coord.); Chris Rash (DL); Mike McCarthy (DL); Arnell Cozart (LB); T.J. Tkac (DB); Ken Bradley Jr. (LB); Jeff Brown (OL); Pat Kilmurray (TE); Eric Rado (WR); Brandon Vega (WR); Khani Glover (RB); Corey Lavin (QB); Nicole Figaro (athletic trainer).

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Collin McCarthy, Jr., OL/DL

While coach Vin Mistretta wants to avoid implementing two-way players as much as possible, it will be tough to keep the 6-foot-6, 220-pounder from seeing extensive actions on both sides of scrimmage. The heir apparent to Shore Sports Network First-Team All-Shore selection Joe Hurle, McCarthy is primed to be a dominant force up front.

X-FACTOR: Chris Richardson, Sr., RB/FS

The undersized Richardson (5-foot-8, 145 pounds) could serve multiple needs in the offense, interchanging as a running back and slot receiver in an effort to find various ways to discover open space that allows him to shift into fifth gear. A quick closer on the ball, Richardson is a disruptive secondary presence breaking up passes.


The younger brother of former Jaguar standout Tyler Towns, this promising sophomore – along with classmate Wally Doman – offers game-breaking potential as a tailback. The slightest degree of daylight will be an invitation to accelerate through a hole and reveal speed in the open field. Let either bounce a run to the perimeter and a defense will find out quickly it’s in big trouble.

PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 7 at Southern

The two former Class A South residents renew their rivalry by opening Constitution Division play in Week 1. Last year, the combination of a one-yard TD run by Steven Rodriguez and a 25-yard field goal from Justin Burkert lifted Jackson to a 10-8 victory. The Jaguars have won four of the last five meetings with Southern.


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