By Wayne Witkowski
Jackson Memorial High School’s football team is entering what has been its prime time the past three seasons.
“Most of our kids have been there and realize that either [they] execute or it’s the end of the season,” Jackson Memorial coach Walt Krystopik said.
“They’re peaking at the right time,” said coach Jay Graber of Allentown High School, which hosts two-time defending champion Jackson Memorial in the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group IV semifinals at 7 p.m. Nov. 18.
With most of Jackson Memorial’s starters back from last year’s team that surged with its best football at the end of the season, this year’s team is rounding into championship form, as seen in Jackson Memorial’s 39-6 victory Nov. 12 at Nottingham High School in the state playoff quarterfinals for its fourth straight victory in a 6-4 season. Allentown has won seven straight games after a 1-2 start in an 8-2 season, including a 48-3 rout in the quarterfinals against Moorestown High School Nov. 11.
Mike Gawlik is well-established as one of the top running backs in the state as he nears 4,000 yards rushing for his career and 2,000 for this season, which would be a first for the Jaguars. Gawlik has 1,813 yards on 214 carries and 22 touchdowns, including three against Nottingham on runs of 29, 7 and 31 yards.
“He’s low to the ground but extremely strong,” Graber said of Gawlik. “He never goes down on the first hit and is very quick.”
Jackson Memorial quarterback Dan Barker has earned Krystopik’s praise for his emergence of late. Barker connected with Matt D’Amore on a 58-yard touchdown pass play in the final quarter and had touchdown runs of 20 and 18 yards, as the Jaguars broke away from a 20-6 lead at halftime against Nottingham.
“Offensivley, he’s made us more competitive,” Krsytopik said of Barker. “He has done a good job with his reads and been a good leader.”
“They have a lot of weapons,” said Graber, who is looking to return to a state championship game.
Allentown lost in overtime to Delsea Regional High School two years ago in the finals of South Jersey, Group III before his team was moved into the Central Jersey, Group IV bracket last season.
The offensive line shares in that credit for Jackson Memorial’s offensive success. Krystopik has built his team first off the strength of his offensive line, which Graber called technically sound. Mitch Mills and Joe Hurle are tackles, Brandon Giuliano and Sean Martin are guards and Devin Martinez is at center. Larry Richardson is the tight end who blocks well along with Tom Pellone. Trevor Louro and Devyn Lee are wideouts with D’Amore.
“They’ve done a good job up front. They’ve gotten better every week,” Krystopik said.
Middle linebacker Zach Lubertazzi returned at the start of Jackson Memorial’s win streak off a lengthy injury and anchors a defense that will be tested by Allentown’s formidable offense that has racked up 379 points (the Redbirds have allowed allowed 141). Jackson Memorial has a 270-161 scoring advantage.
“They have a lot of talent and talented runners. They’ve got everything,” Krystopik said of Allentown. “It’s quite a challenge.”
Allentown quarterback Jordan Winston completed five of six passes for 120 yards against Moorestown, putting him over 1,000 yards for the season — 1,020 yards (49-of-84), 10 touchdowns and only three interceptions — and he has rushed for 1,019 yards (two on short runs against Moorestown) on 128 carries with 10 touchdowns. It is the second straight year he has passed and run for 1,000 yards.
Joe Mannino has rushed for 822 yards on 100 carries and got his 13th rushing touchdown against Moorestown. Aydon Chavis, who also rushed for a touchdown against Moorestown, has been a strong complement to the rushing attack that has racked up 3,200 yards on the ground and 43 touchdowns. Chavis has rushed for 571 yards and eight touchdowns.
Putting the brakes on that onslaught will rely first on the defensive front of ends Richardson and Phil Jenkins and tackles Hurle and Ryan Wiessel. Chance Benjamin and Leo Shimonovich joins Lubertazzi at linebacker. A.J. Tolmachewich and Devyn Lee are cornerbacks, and Gawlik and Dan Kellett start at safety with Jordan Caldwell rotating in.
Jake McKown handles the punting and, although Tolmachewich has done much in the kicking, Krystopik said he is not set there and that duty still is up in the air.
That could become a key if the outcome comes down to the last few minutes and an extra-point kick or field goal could decide the game.