By Wayne Witkowski
Tight end X’zavier Harris took the lead in a revolving spotlight of standouts for Allentown High School’s football team when it beat Moorestown High School, 48-3, in the opening round of the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group IV playoffs.
A number of Allentown players will need to put in their best efforts Nov. 18 when the Redbirds face their biggest challenge of the season at home against two-time defending champion Jackson Memorial High School.
Allentown brings an 8-2 record and a seven-game win streak against a Jackson Memorial team (6-4) that beat Nottingham High School, 39-6, for its fourth straight victory.
Allentown has outscored its opponents, 379-141. Jackson Memorial has a 270-161 scoring advantage.
“They’re a great team peaking at the right time with a lot of weapons,” Allentown coach Jay Graber said.
The coach is looking to return to a state championship game like his team did two seasons ago when, competing in the South Jersey, Group III section, it got to the finals and lost in overtime to Delsea Regional High School.
Allentown has its share of weapons as well, with Harris being the latest courtesy of a spectacular game, catching a 55-yard touchdown pass from Jordan Winston, returning the second-half kickoff 73 yards for a touchdown and running back a punt 66 yards for another of his three touchdowns in the game.
Winston completed five of six passes for 120 yards. In a perfect indication of his balanced approach, Winston has passed for 1,020 yards (49-of-84), 10 touchdowns and only three interceptions, and he has rushed for 1,019 yards on 128 carries with 10 touchdowns, including two against Moorestown on short runs.
Joe Mannino has rushed for 822 yards on 100 carries and 13 touchdowns. 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 scored 43 touchdowns. Chavis has rushed for 571 yards and eight touchdowns.
Jackson Memorial also has developed a balanced offense with the emergence in recent weeks of quarterback Dan Barker to complement one of the top running backs in the state in Mike Gawlik, who has close to 4,000 career yards rushing and has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of the past three seasons.
Graber said Jackson Memorial most closely resembles Shawnee High School, which is a South Jersey power that beat Allentown, 17-10, before the Redbirds reeled off their latest win streak.
“They have a lot of talent and talented runners. They’ve got everything,” Jackson Memorial coach Walt Krystopik said of Allentown. “It’s quite a challenge. Our kids have been there and realize that [they] either [need to] execute or it’s the end of the season.”
This season, Gawlik is on the threshold of becoming the first Jackson Memorial running back in its rich tradition to rush for 2,000 yards. He 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. “He never goes down on the first hit and is very quick.”
Barker rushed for two touchdowns against Nottingham on runs of 20 and 18 yards, giving him seven for the season. He also completed a 58-yard touchdown pass play to Matt D’Amore, which was his fifth this season.
Both coaches say that minimizing mistakes is the first step, but Krystopik said his team has been reinforced on the defensive side in recent weeks with the return of linebacker Zach Lubertazzi, who was one of the leaders on defense last year when the Jaguars also had a surge at the end of the season to the title.
“They’re peaking at the right time,” Graber said.
Allentown has had to defend against strong offensive lines but will face the most tested in Jackson Memorial, which has been the foundation to Krystopik’s formula for success. Graber recognized Jackson Memorial’s line as technically sound, which he also credits to many other phases of its game plan.
Allentown has assembled a solid line of its own that has gotten its offense in motion, including guards Cam Capone and Mike Pugliese; tackles Harrison Hill and Ryan Huth, who is headed to Princeton University; and center Antonio Triscari. Fullback Nick Campbell and tight end Rick Mottram, who is the leader on defense at linebacker with 119 tackles, also block well for Winston, Mannino and Chavis. Harris, Joe Bellotti and Sadik Queen are wide receivers.
Chris McCrae handles the kicking and punting for Allentown. Krystopik said he is concerned about his team’s kicking game, where A.J. Tolmachewich has done most of the work.
“It’s up in the air,” Krystopik said.
For Allentown, Makelli Quinones, Huth, Triscari and Colin Roy lead the defensive charge on the line, with Hill rotating in. Jha’Quel Brown and Max Boyle join Mottram at linebacker. Chavis and Queen are cornerbacks, and Bellotti and Ryan Locke are safeties. Brown and Queen are sophomores but have shown senior maturity at times.
Devon Hoernlein finished 30th in 20:27 and Jesse Bagger was 35th in 20:32 for Allentown’s girls’ cross-country team in the NJSIAA Group III championships Nov. 12 at Holmdel Park in Holmdel, where the Redbirds were eighth in the team standings. Val Kiel finished 53rd in 21:01, while Sara Gutter was 59th in 21:17 and Jamie Crowe was 69th in 21:31.0
Charlie Carey led Allentown’s boys, finishing 59th in 17:42. Nat Byrnes was 86th in 17:57 and Matt Gregory was 98th in 18:08, as the Redbirds were 16th in the team standings.