Defense steers Jaguars to 10-7 victory over Manalapan in state playoffs


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JACKSON — The cliche that “defense wins championships” proved true for the Jackson Memorial High School football team in the Jaguars’ South Jersey Group IV state sectional playoff game against Manalapan High School on Oct. 28 in Jackson.

No. 3 seed Jackson Memorial defeated No. 6 seed Manalapan, 10-7, to advance to the sectional semifinals for the first time in three years.

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“That defense was Jaguars’ defense,” Coach Vin Mistretta said. “It was really fun to watch.”

Jackson Memorial’s defense made huge plays at key moments of the game and delivered its two biggest plays in the final 90 seconds of the second quarter with the game tied 0-0.

The Jaguars intercepted Manalapan quarterback Matthew Grzejka twice and those Braves’ turnovers led to a 10-0 Jackson Memorial lead at the half.

Junior linebacker Ethan Kalinauskas intercepted a pass with the Braves set up at the Jaguars’ 16 with 1:21 to play in the second quarter.

Heavy pressure by linebacker Aidan Sweeney forced Grzejka to throw a wobbly pass that Kalinauskas caught and returned 77 yards for a touchdown. The extra point gave the Jaguars a 7-0 lead with 1:04 to play.

“It was like a scene out of a movie when I made that play,” Kalinauskas said. “I just saw green in front of me and knew I had to get into the end zone. It felt great.”

Kalinauskas’ game-changing play swung the momentum all the way to the Jaguars, who fed off that momentum when Manalapan began its next possession.

Junior defensive back Albert D’Alessandro got the ball back for the Jaguars with :39 to play when he dove to the ground and came up with his fifth interception of the season. Jackson Memorial took possession at its 43.

“I made a play on the ball to get a pick for my team,” D’Alessandro said. “I feel like we found a new source in our defense. We played really well (tonight).”

Senior quarterback Tai Mann ran for a first down to the Manalapan 39 with :17 to play. On the third play of the drive, the left-handed signal caller connected with Frank Castellano along the right sideline on a pass that put the ball at the 11 with :08 to play.

After Mann threw an incomplete pass toward the end zone on the next play, senior placekicker Alexey Tselichtev came on the field and kicked a 27-yard field goal to give the Jaguars a 10-0 lead as time expired in the second quarter.

“That was a great drive,” Mistretta said. “Tai made some big plays for us. It was great.”

During the final two quarters, the Jaguars’ offense did not pick up a first down, but the defense did enough to hold off the Braves.

Manalapan cut the lead to 10-7 with 9:15 to play on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Grzejka to senior wideout Alex Dille.

Dille finished with six catches for 65 yards and a touchdown. Grzejka threw for 121 yards in the contest.

The Jaguars’ defense kept Manalapan off the scoreboard in the Braves’ final two possessions.

“We knew we had to finish the game,” Kalinauskas said. “We knew we were in a dogfight. We knew we had to step up and make a play.”

The defense delivered on fourth and two at the Jackson Memorial 25, denying Manalapan running back Thomas Clark-Glasco a first down with 2:08 to play.

Manalapan’s final possession began at its own 31 with :47 to play and no timeouts. The Braves moved to midfield on a 19-yard pass from Grzejka to tight end Joseph Melo.

On the next play, junior linebacker Brandon Bigelow led a host of defenders who sacked Grzejka at the Manalapan 44.

“Our coaches tell us all the time that sometimes you are going to be in a tough position and you have to find a way to make a play,” Bigelow said. “We are all one big team. We stick our heads for each other. We make big plays for each other.”

The Braves were able to run two more plays, but could not get past midfield and the Jaguars advanced to the sectional semifinals.

“For them to show up and walk off (the field) with the pride of a Jaguar and never quit was awesome to see,” Mistretta said of his players.

Jackson Memorial (7-2) will travel to play No. 2 seed Millville High School in the South Jersey Group IV sectional semifinals on Nov. 4.

Manalapan fell to 3-7 on the season.

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