Jackson Liberty soccer squad sets sights on winning B South title

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Jackson Liberty High School boys soccer player Elton Canka dribbles the ball past teammate Gerard Cerino during practice on Sept. 8 in Jackson. The Lions open up the 2021 season on Sept. 9 against Barnegat.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Jackson Liberty High School boys soccer player Gerard Cerino dribbles the ball up the field during practice on Sept. 8 in Jackson.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Jackson Liberty High School boys soccer player Evan Wesikopf passes the ball to a teammate during practice on Sept. 8 in Jackson. STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Jackson Liberty High School boys soccer player Elton Canka dribbles the ball past teammate Gerard Cerino during practice on Sept. 8 in Jackson. The Lions open up the 2021 season on Sept. 9 against Barnegat.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Jackson Liberty High School boys soccer player Gerard Cerino dribbles the ball up the field during practice on Sept. 8 in Jackson.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Jackson Liberty High School boys soccer player Evan Wesikopf passes the ball to a teammate during practice on Sept. 8 in Jackson. STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF

JACKSON – The Jackson Liberty High School boys soccer players believe they have the best squad the program has had over the last four years.

First-year head coach Justin Siering agrees with his players’ assessment. Having been involved with the program since 2012, Siering said the 2021 squad is “definitely the strongest team (Jackson Liberty) has had in a while,”

The Lions will compete in the Shore Conference B South Division and are scheduled to open the season today, Sept. 9, against Barnegat High School.

“Winning the division is something we can obtain if we play well and stay injury-free,” Siering said in an interview ahead of the season opener. “We have some seniors who have put in the time for four years and have kept getting better. A lot of our junior class players have been playing varsity since their freshman year. We have a really strong underclassmen class as well.”

Seniors Ayendi Batista (goalkeeper) and Elton Canka (forward) lead a hungry group of Lions who have their sights set on winning the B South title and qualifying for the state sectional tournament.

The Lions have not qualified for the state sectional tournament since 2016 (the state sectional tournament was not held in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic).

Siering believes he has a squad that can reach the state sectional tournament and make a run in the post-season event.

“I definitely want to make it into states and make some waves there,” he added.

Batista will become a four-year starter in net. He has earned two all-division selections during his time as the Lions’ goalkeeper.

“I’m really hyped for this season,” he said. “I want to win as much as I can. I think we have a good team over here.”

Canka will try to fill a role as one of Jackson Liberty’s top goal-scorers in 2021 He was off to a fine start in 2020 before he injured his ACL four games into the season and missed the rest of the campaign.

Canka scored three goals to help the Lions get out to a 4-0 start. The Jaguars missed his production and went 1-5 in his absence to finish the 2020 season with a 5-5 record.

Canka said it feels great being back on the field with his teammates and is looking to do whatever it takes in each game to help the Lions win.

“I think I can lead by … scoring goals and giving out some assists,” he said. “I want to contribute as much as I can in each game.”

Juniors Jim Cappucci, Gerard Cerino and Connor Yurgel will team up with Canka to pace the offense.

Sophomore midfielder Adal Garcia is a player Siering expects to make a big jump this year after playing on the varsity squad as a freshman.

“He was a really good varsity player as a freshman and I am excited to see what he can do this year,” Siering said of Garcia.

On defense, senior Youssef Takawy, sophomore Gio Batista and juniors Nick Malagnone and Evan Wesikopf return to provide a solid group of defenders for the Lions.

Malagnone will become a three-year varsity player and Siering said he is “instrumental” in setting up the Lions on defense.

Freshman Rocco Malagnone will see time on defense and offense and is the backup goalkeeper.

Junior Sean Mazon is another newcomer and is expected to make an impact after transferring from Middletown South High School.

Jackson Liberty is scheduled to face Barnegat in a B South match on Sept. 9 and crosstown rival Jackson Memorial on Sept. 10.

Siering said in addition to each player’s individual responsibilities, he wants everyone to focus on a common goal for the team to achieve. He believes having a team mindset will help his squad have more success on the pitch and lead to a winning season.

“This is a team sport and we are going to be more successful if we are all in this together,” the coach said.