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Lions gear up for football opener against Jaguars - centraljersey.com
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Lions gear up for football opener against Jaguars

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By Wayne Witkowski

Jackson Liberty High School and Jackson Memorial High School football players live in adjacent neighborhoods in some cases, but they’ve been much further apart in what they’ve achieved in recent years.

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Jackson Liberty players hope to narrow that difference when they host the Jaguars at 7 p.m. Sept. 9. Jackson Liberty has yet to win the rivalry, and Jackson Memorial has won the last two NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group IV championships as it comes into the game as a firm favorite.

“Jackson Memorial is a huge challenge, having won back-to-back state titles,” Jackson Liberty coach James Sharples said. “They are big and strong and return a phenomenal running back. The key is for us not to be afraid of the challenge — to embrace it and limit our mistakes.”

Quarterback Ryan Van Sickel is among the graduates off last year’s team that lost its opener against Jackson Memorial by a lopsided score. But the Lions pulled together to make the state playoffs and aside from a convincing loss to Brick Memorial High School in its opener, went 4-4 in its other games during a 4-6 season.

Sharples said senior Justin Mayes is getting there as the quarterback, and senior fullback Steve Schuster and running backs Jaquell Spears, a junior, and Brad McKelvey, a senior, will run the ball.

This year’s team is showing signs it can compete against the Jaguars and contend in the Shore Conference B South Division. The Lions begin their division schedule Sept. 16 at Manchester Township High School. Lakewood High School is the preseason favorite in the division.

“I like our team’s attitude and enthusiasm. They are extremely hard workers,” Sharples said.

Against Jackson Memorial, the Lions need to stop Mike Gawlik, who rushed for more than 1,500 yards last season and is in his third season starting in the Jaguars’ backfield running behind a very experienced offensive line.

Jackson Liberty’s offensive line includes left tackle Nick Patla, left guard Joe Crouchman, center Jake Stillwell, right guard Xavier Roman and right tackle Javier Duran. Patla and Crouchman are juniors and the rest are seniors. Senior Derek Catron is the tight end.

Ryan Downer, who showed some solid efforts last season, returns at wide receiver with fellow senior Malcolm Locklear.

Defensively, they’ll have their hands full trying to stop Gawlik, one of the top running backs in the Shore, and quarterback Dan Barker, who started most of last season running behind an experienced offensive line as well as other skills players with proven experience. It rests on a defensive line of nose tackle Stillwell and defensive ends Duran and junior Nick Johnson, with Castron, Shuster and Patla playing as inside linebackers and Locklear, junior Jay Young and sophomore Sean Reid playing on the outside.

Downer and McKelvey are cornerbacks, and junior Dan Lignelli is the safety.

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