Jackson Memorial players will gain experience in heat of grid battles

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Jackson Memorial High School defensive lineman #52 Eric Ibe leads the team on to the field before its season opener against Freehold on Sept. 2 in Jackson. Jackson lost 20-19. STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Jackson Memorial High School quarterback Tai Mann rolls to his right and completes a pass up the field during a game against Freehold on Sept. 2 in Jackson. Mann threw a touchdown in the contest.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Jackson Memorial High School defensive back Robert Paneque tackles Freehold running back Yah-Sin Calhoun during a game played on Sept. 2 in Jackson.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Jackson Memorial High School defensive lineman #52 Eric Ibe leads the team on to the field before its season opener against Freehold on Sept. 2 in Jackson. Jackson lost 20-19. STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Jackson Memorial High School quarterback Tai Mann rolls to his right and completes a pass up the field during a game against Freehold on Sept. 2 in Jackson. Mann threw a touchdown in the contest.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Jackson Memorial High School defensive back Robert Paneque tackles Freehold running back Yah-Sin Calhoun during a game played on Sept. 2 in Jackson.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF

JACKSON – Talent is something Jackson Memorial High School football coach Vin Mistretta knows he has on his roster.

He also knows his 2021 Jaguars are a young team and do not have as much varsity experience as his 2019 and 2020 teams had.

That is why Mistretta’s plan is for the Jaguars to do the best they can to compete against some of the top teams in the Shore Conference as they gain experience each week.

“We have some guys who were role players last year and who were around when we made it to the state sectional championship game in 2019,” Mistretta said. “They understand what it takes to win, but it’s now up to them to execute it on the field.”

Junior Tai Mann is now the full-time starting quarterback after splitting time at that position in 2020. Mann will also play in the defensive backfield.

At running back, junior Aidan Sweeney steps in to succeed Will Towns, who led the conference with 1,385 rushing yards in 2020 and scored 14 touchdowns.

Towns is now playing at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

Mistretta, the team’s fifth-year coach, said Sweeney is well equipped to keep the rushing attack going.

“He is going to be the workhorse,” the coach said of Sweeney. “We are going to feed him and see what he can do.”

Mann is also expected to contribute to the ground game from the quarterback position.

Senior running back James Tobin and junior fullback Angelo Nicosia will also factor into the rushing attack.

On the outside, senior wide receiver Justin Hirsch returns as one of Mann’s top targets.

A positive factor for the offense will be a veteran offensive line with junior Ryan Fischer and seniors Kyle Laverty and Donovan Zapata returning with varsity experience in the trenches.

Seniors Mike Orientale and Eric Ibe will complete the starting five on the offensive line.

Ibe had a breakout season on defense in 2020 as he recorded nine quarterback sacks and 50 total tackles from his defensive tackle position.

Ibe, Laverty, Zapata and Fischer will make up the defensive line.

Senior Tom Widawsky returns at middle linebacker to lead the defense.

The secondary will feature a majority of new players who are ready to make an impact with senior Rob Paneque and sophomores Albert D’Alessandro and Jaiden Hernandez.

Mistretta said he thought D’Alessandro and Hernandez played “really well” in the season opener against Freehold High School on Sept. 2 in Jackson.

D’Alessandro returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown to give the Jaguars the early lead against the Colonials.

Sophomore Shaun Hubbard caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from Mann in the second quarter and Nicosia burst into the end zone on a three-yard run later in the second quarter to give Jackson Memorial a 19-7 lead at halftime.

In the second half, the Colonials scored two unanswered touchdowns and pulled out a 20-19 victory as the 2021 season got underway.

“The kids fought hard,” Mistretta said of his players. “We just have to learn how to win. We are young and inexperienced. It’s learning how to win and how to finish games. Those are things we will need to sharpen up.”

Jackson Memorial (0-1) will play in the Shore Conference Colonial Division this season and face Middletown South, Southern Regional, Holmdel and Manalapan.

Mistretta believes the way his players competed against a “good team” like Freehold shows they can compete with any of the teams in their division.

“There are no surprises,” he said. “We know we belong with this type of team. We can compete with anybody.”

Jackson Memorial will host Southern Regional on Sept. 10 in its second game of the new campaign.