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Photo gallery by Mark Brown/B51 Photography

PISCATAWAY — Injuries to key players, a lack of an offensive identify and a shaky second-half of the regular season seemed like eons ago for Jackson Memorial on Saturday in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV championship game.

The Jaguars completed an incredible transformation at Rutgers University’s High Point Solutions Stadium by thrashing top-seeded Brick Memorial, 42-14, to repeat as sectional champions. Jackson started the season 3-0, but stumbled down the stretch and entered the playoffs with a 5-4 record before turning in a dominating postseason run to win the program’s fifth sectional championship.

Jackson Memorial captured its second straight NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV title with a 42-214 win over Brick Memorial. (Photo by Mark Brown/B51 Photography).

“Nobody is perfect, we just got ourselves together and we knew what we had to do to get the job done,” said junior running back Mike Gawlik.

“It was just like last year,” said senior Kyle Johnson. “We got hot at the right time.”

Gawlik turned in an all-time championship game performance with 365 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns, gashing Brick Memorial’s defense on the ground and through the air. He ran for 208 yards and three touchdowns on 32 carries, hauled in a 58-yard catch on a crucial play early in the game, threw a 49-yard touchdown pass and returned the opening kickoff 50 yards. Gawlik is listed at 5-foot-8 and 155 pounds, but on Saturday he was the biggest player on the field.

“When we see little Mikey Gawlik running over linebackers and defensive linemen it inspires us,” said senior offensive lineman Chris Mondello.

Johnson ran for a pair of touchdowns and also caught the touchdown pass from Gawlik. He completed all five of his passes for 140 yards and finished with 264 all-purpose yards. The two-man game of Johnson and Gawlik in Jackson’s zone-read offense proved to be unstoppable in the playoffs.

“Kyle brings another element to the game; another running option,” Gawlik said. “With both of us int he backfield it was difficult for teams to stop us.”

Senior quarterback Tim Santiago ran for 122 yards and a touchdown and also threw a 67-yard touchdown pass to senior Elie Lavarin for Brick Memorial, which was thwarted in its bid to capture the program’s third sectional title. A pair of crucial fumbles really hurt the Mustangs, and the Jaguars consistently putting them in third-and-long situations forced them out of their comfort zone.

“Every time playing Brick Memorial with their triple option it’s all about assignment football,” said Johnson, who is also a standout defensive back. “Everyone just has to do their job.”

“The first time we played them (a 28-7 loss in the regular season) we definitely shot ourselves in the foot,” Gawlik said. “With two weeks off we healed our injuries and watched a lot of film. We knew we had to shut them down.”

Two huge plays early in each half catapulted Jackson to victory. The first came on Jackson’s second drive of the game on third-and-29 from its own 41-yard line. A strip-sack by Brick Memorial senior defensive end Chris Hayes on second down pushed the Jaguars way back, but fortunately lineman Larry Richardson was able to fall on it to retain possession. On the next play, offensive coordinator Cory Lavin dialed up a brilliant throw-back screen to Gawlik, who had nothing but open turf in front of him. He weaved his way toward the end zone before being knocked out of bounds at the 1-yard line. Two plays later he leaped over the pile and across the goal line to give Jackson a 7-0 lead.

It was the first time all season Jackson ran that play.

“That hasn’t looked good all season (in practice),” said Jackson head coach Walt Krystopik. “We practice our screens, but historically we haven’t been a big screen team. We came out this week in practice and it just started clicking in the kids’ heads. It was a big play for us. It kicked us off and got us going.”

Gawlik had just one reception for negative yards coming into the game.

The second crucial play came on the opening kickoff of the second half with Jackson leading 14-0 and Brick Memorial set to receive. Santiago field the kick and had the ball knocked free, and sophomore Tom Pellone recovered at the Brick Memorial 28-yard line. Two plays later, Johnson faked the handoff to Gawlik and went untouched on a 20-yard touchdown run to give Jackson a commanding 21-0 lead.

Jackson had taken a 14-0 lead int he second quarter with a 10-play, 74-yard drive. A 19-yard pass to tight end Tyler Towns moved the ball into Brick Memorial territory, and Gawlik finished the drive with a 27-yard touchdown run.

Brick Memorial was able to get on the board by quickly answering Jackson’s third touchdown with a 5-play, 76-yard scoring drive. Santiago ripped off a 49-yard run to the Jackson 15-yard line and scored from two yards out on first-and-goal.

The Mustangs’ defense had no answer for Jackson’s offense, however, and the Jaguars continued to pile on the points. The Jaguars emptied their playbook and made great calls to keep Brick Memorial’s defense off balance. In the second half they started using Gawlik at quarterback in a wildcat formation with Johnson as a wide receiver on jet sweeps. On second down from Brick Memorial’s 49-yard line, Gawlik started to run outside before pulling up and launching a pass to a wide-open Johnson, who got behind the Mustangs’ secondary for the touchdown and a 28-7 lead.

“I couldn’t see over the line but I just chucked it up there,” Gawlik said. “I knew Kyle would make a play.”

The Jaguars’ lead grew to 35-7 late in the third quarter when Gawlik scored on an 11-yard run to cap a 5-play, 40-yard drive. Jackson’s defense set the offense up with a short field by stopping Brick Memorial deep in its own end.

Brick Memorial answered one play later when Santiago hit Lavarin with a quick pass, and the senior broke Gawlik’s tackle attempt and raced 67 yards to the end zone. But down 35-14 with a triple-option offense, the deficit was too great for the Mustangs. The Jaguars stopped the Mustangs on downs at the 24-yard line with 5:28 left in the fourth quarter to effectively end the game, and Johnson put the finishing touches on the emphatic championship victory with a 34-yard touchdown run on a naked bootleg with 4:04 to go.

“We knew coming into this game it was going to be a dogfight, but we had to finish,” Gawlik said. “For all the seniors this one their last shot, and we had to step up.”

“It feels amazing, it’s exhilarating,” Mondello said. “It’s awesome.”

The way Jackson turned its season around to defend its championship is a testament to its coaching staff. With junior Dan Barker as the starting quarterback the Jaguars remained in their traditional multiple-I offense, alternating Gawlik and senior Vinny Lee at running back with Johnson at wide receiver. When Barker was injured in the regular-season loss to Brick Memorial, sophomore A.J. Tolmachewich took the reigns at quarterback in wins over Toms River South and Toms River East. At 5-3 and with a game against Red Bank Catholic coming before the playoffs, Krystopik decided to make a change.

“After the East game coach K called me into the office and said, ‘Do you want to be quarterback?’,” Johnson said. “I said ‘Yeah, I want it. It’s my senior season’.”

The Jaguars lost to RBC 21-10 and the offense wasn’t in sync, but it set the foundation for what would become an explosive rushing offense.

“At first it was really hard, but through the weeks it kept getting easier,” Johnson said.

In a 21-7 win over Brick in the opening round of the playoffs, Gawlik ran for 215 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 36 carries, and a Johnson showed the effect he could have on opposing defenses by running for big gains on the few times he pulled the ball. It continued the following week in a 56-10 thrashing of Steinert in the semifinals before culminating in the sectional championship game.

“With Kyle teams couldn’t just gang up on Mike Gawlik and put nine guys in the box and chase after him,” Krystopik said. “They had to play disciplined and stay home, and that opened up lanes for both of them.”

The growth of the offense line was also hugely important for Jackson Memorial to get back to the top. A menacing unit last season that was the driving force in the Jags’ 11-1 season returned just one play, and when senior Dylan Smith went down with a knee injury early in the season it left Jackson with five new players up front, plus new starters at tight end and fullback.

Senior Austin Ostrander returned from an injury midseason to help bolster the unit, and sophomore Joe Hurle stepped in to make an immediate impact. With junior Mitch Mills at left tackle, Richardson at left guard, Mondello at center and Ostrander and Hurle on the right side, the Jaguars punished all three of their playoff opponents on the ground.

“We were a young team up front with all brand new players, and it took a while for them to come together and learn what it’s all about,” Krystopik said. “A South will definitely teach you that lesson hard.”

“After our three-game losing streak we really came together, and knew we had to be better,” Mondello said. “We needed time to gel as a group.”

“They were huge,” Johnson said. “In the preseason our line was really shaky, but they worked week-to-week and got better and better. They were unbelievable in the playoffs. Me or Mikey couldn’t have done it without the line.”

Jackson has now won back-to-back titles for the second time in program history (2000-2001), and this version will be remembered as a resilient group that went outside the box to forge a championship unit. The Jaguars have plenty of talented players, but it was all about figuring out how to get them to play to their potential.

Jackson knew as long as it made the playoffs it was going to be in the title mix, and in the biggest games of the season the Jaguars made all the right moves.


Box Score

Jackson Memorial 42, Brick Memorial 14

Jackson MemorialBrick Memorial
First downs1915
Passing yards18978

Jackson Memorial (8-4) 7 7 21 7 – 42

Brick Memorial (9-3) 0 0 14 0 – 14

Scoring summary

JM – Mike Gawlik 1-yard run (Jared Calhoun kick)

JM – Mike Gawlik 27-yard run (Jared Calhoun kick)

JM – Kyle Johnson 20-yard run (Jared Calhoun kick)

BM – Tim Santiago 2-yard run (Matt Cuppari kick)

JM – Kyle Johnson 49-yard pass from Mike Gawlik (Jared Calhoun kick)

JM – Mike Gawlik 11-yard run (Jared Calhoun)

BM – Elie Lavarin 67-yard pass form Tim Santiago (Matt Cuppari kick)

JM – Kyle Johnson 34-yard run (Jared Calhoun kick)

Individual statistics

Rushing – JM: Mike Gawlik 32-208, Kyle Johnson 11-60, Tom Pellone 1-12; BM: Tim Santiago 20-122, Tony Thorpe 17-102, Elie Lavarin 5-41, Blair Netterman 1-0, Justin Hans 1-(-2).

Passing – JM: Kyle Johnson 5-5-0 140, Mike Gawlik 1-1-0 49; BM: Tim Santiago 2-4-0 78.

Receiving – JM: Kyle Lona 2-21, Mike Gawlik 1-58, Kyle Johnson 1-49, Vinny Lee 1-42, Tyler Towns 1-19; BM: Elie Lavarin 1-67, Grant McKelvey 1-11.