Game of Inches: No. 7 Jackson Memorial edges No. 9 Manalapan on controversial fumble in overtime
JACKSON TOWNSHIP – Jackson Memorial and Manalapan have combined to produce plenty of dramatic endings during their burgeoning rivalry, and Thursday’s conclusion may be the wildest of them all.
With the game tied at 13 heading to overtime, Jackson pulled ahead on the opening possession when junior quarterback Dennis Caswell connected with senior wide receiver Frank Castellano for a 29-yard touchdown pass. Then it was Manalapan’s turn, and the Braves moved quickly to the Jackson 3-yard line on a 22-yard connection from junior quarterback Ryan Dougherty to senior tight end Joseph Melo.
On first-and-goal from the 3-yard line, Manalapan junior running back Jason Rodriguez took the handoff and tried to leap over the pile of linemen and extend the ball across the plane of the end zone. Manalapan thought he was in for a touchdown, but while he was reaching toward the goal line Jackson Memorial senior cornerback Ryan Jagodzinski raced over to punch the ball free. Senior linebacker Ethan Kalinauskas recovered the loose ball as Manalapan signaled touchdown and Jackson made its case that it was a fumble. The officials then convened and delivered their verdict.
Jackson ball. Game over.
The controversial ending capped a hectic fourth quarter and overtime that saw the Jaguars, ranked No. 7 in the Shore Sports Network Shore 16 Rankings, exit John J. Munley field with a heart-pounding 20-13 Shore Conference nondivisional victory over the No. 9 Braves. Whether the play was a touchdown or not will likely be debated for weeks to come between Jackson and Manalapan supporters, but the official result has Jackson beginning its season 1-0.
“Absolutely not,” Jagodzinski said when asked if he thought Rodriguez was over the goal line. “He was sitting on the pile and I punched it out and we got the ball.”
It was a heady play by a senior who hadn’t played organized football prior to Jackson Memorial head coach Vin Mistretta convincing him to come out for the football team as a freshman.
“Ryan was in my freshmen phys-ed class and had never played a down of football in his life, but everything he did was so smooth as a basketball player for us,” Mistretta said. “But at 5-foot-6 or whatever he is (listed as 5-foot-8 on the roster), I don’t know what his basketball career is, but I said Ry, come out and try football. He was our MVP on JV as a sophomore, got some time last year as a cornerback, and made a football IQ play of 200 to punch the ball out. That’s an unbelievable play by someone who isn’t a football kid at heart.”
Kalinauskas has a knack for making big plays against Manalapan, as well. He recovered the fumble after Jagodzinski’s punch-out and had a 77-yard interception return for a touchdown during the Jaguars’ 10-7 NJSIAA playoff victory over the Braves last season.
“This was the craziest game I’ve ever played in,” Kalinauskas said. “We’re never going to give up on a game so when the ball came out instinct took over and I got on it. We’re all brothers so we have each other’s backs. In overtime it was backs against the wall and we said going in that it was our game to win.”
How the two teams arrived at the final, controversial moment was tremendous in and of itself. Jackson had taken a 13-10 lead on a 4-yard touchdown run by senior fullback Brandon Bigelow with 6:32 left in the fourth quarter. A penalty on the extra point pushed the attempt back five years and the subsequent kick missed its mark, leaving the door open for Manalapan to potentially tie the game with a field goal.
A superb 28-yard sideline reception by senior Jackson Pfister put the ball at the Jackson 36-yard line, but Jaguars’ defensive end Shaun Hubbard had an unconscious four-play sequence that included two sacks and a tackle for loss. A penalty mixed in eventually had Manalapan facing a fourth-and-28 from its own 49-yard line with under three minutes to play in regulation. The Braves had no choice but to go for it, and Dougherty escaped pressure, moved to his left, and lofted a pass that Melo ran under and secured for an improbable 44-yard reception down to the Jackson 7-yard line.
Jackson’s defense buckled down, including a tackle for loss by Kalinauskas on first down, and forced a field goal attempt that Manalapan senior Jake Horowitz knocked through from 25 yards out to tie the game at 13 with 1:04 on the clock. Jackson quickly moved into Manalapan territory with time winding down but a pass to the end zone fell incomplete as the final seconds of regulation ticked off.
Jackson got the ball first in overtime, and after a false start penalty and a 1-yard rush, the second-and-14 play call came into the huddle. Castellano knew this was his opportunity for redemption. On defense, Castellano had allowed a pair of long receptions, including the Hail Mary that set up the tying field goal.
“Quick memory, just had to forget everything,” Castellano said. “I got another chance and I said to myself that it’s time for me to make a play for my team.”
Caswell lofted a pinpoint pass to the back-right corner of the end zone where Castellano jumped to high-point the ball and secure the touchdown to give Jackson the lead.
“Frankie Castellano made that play about five times in the preseason so we expect things like that,” Mistretta said. “We know we’re going to find adversity and we just hope our kids overcome it.”
Overshadowed by the scintillating moments of the fourth quarter and overtime was the performance of Jackson sophomore running back Jonah Glenn, who rushed for a game-high 156 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries. After a scoreless first half, Manalapan took the opening kickoff of the third quarter and marched 64 yards across 13 plays while chewing 7:04 off the clock, taking a 7-0 lead on Rodriguez’s 9-yard touchdown run. Jackson struggled to get anything going in the first half and was now down by a touchdown, but Glenn ignited the offense with a 40-yard run on the first play of the ensuing series. He finished the drive off with a 13-yard touchdown run that quickly tied the game at seven.
“He’s special,” Mistretta said. “We’ve seen a lot of special running backs come through here and we have Mike Gawlik back on staff as kind of a mentor to him. He’s going to be a very special player. We have so much faith in him and he showed it today with some explosiveness.”
Dougherty threw for 181 yards – all in the second half – while Melo had four receptions for 77 yards and Rodriguez ran for 67 yards and a touchdown to lead Manalapan.
Following Glenn’s game-tying touchdown run, Manalapan answered with a 22-yard field goal by Horowitz to take a 10-7 lead early in the fourth quarter. A busted coverage allowed senior wide receiver Anthony Macchio to get wide-open on a 57-yard pass from Dougherty, but Jackson’s defense was able to keep Manalapan out of the end zone.
“We knew it was going to be a battle,” Mistretta said. “Dom (Manalapan head coach Dom Lepore) is awesome and we have so much respect for what they do over there. We knew they were going to give us everything they had.”
No. 7 Jackson Memorial 20, No. 9 Manalapan 13 (OT)
|Jackson Memorial (1-0)
M – Jason Rodriguez 9-yard run (Jake Horowitz kick)
JM – Jonah Glenn 13-yard run (Joe Muzzillo kick)
M – Jake Horowitz 22-yard field goal
JM – Brandon Bigelow 4-yard run (kick failed)
M – Jake Horowitz 25-yard field goal
JM – Frank Castellano 29-yard pass from Dennis Caswell (Joe Muzzillo kick)
RUSHING – M: Jason Rodriguez 18-67, Ah’sere Woolfolk 13-44, Ryan Dougherty 5-(-12); JM: Jonah Glenn 21-156, Brandon Bigelow 2-7, Dennis Caswell 3-7, Albert D’Alessandro 1-1.
PASSING – M: Ryan Dougherty 8-17-0, 181; JM: Dennis Caswell 3-9-0, 45; Joe Zundritch 1-1-0, 31.
RECEIVING – M: Joseph Melo 4-77, Anthony Macchio 2-70, Jackson Pfister 1-28, Ah’sere Woolfolk 1-9; JM: Frank Castellano 2-42, Jaiden Hernandez 1-31, Shaun Hubbard 1-3.