Jaguars fall in CJ IV basketball title game


Football, wrestling and baseball have been in the state spotlight among boys sports at Jackson Memorial High School in recent years. Track and field athletes have performed well in state meets, and soccer hoisted a state championship banner long before the township split into two high schools five years ago.

But boys basketball has been off the state tournament radar until this season.

It has been 40 years since a Jackson boys basketball team reached an NJSIAA state sectional tournament championship game, that one coming as a smaller Group II school, and the Jaguars came up short in that game.

And never has a Jackson team won 21 games before this year’s Jackson Memorial squad did it. The previous high of 20 victories came in that 1970-71 season that ended in an 81-62 loss to Lawrence in the sectional finals.

This season, the Jaguars ventured into unfamiliar territory that ended with a 61-36 loss to Rancocas Valley in the Central Jersey Group IV championship game on March 7.

“Rancocas Valley was fast, physical and really good. We had to play great to beat them,” Jaguars’ coach Joe Fagan said of the victors who seemed more formidable than their 18-11 record. “It’s a different level.”

In the game played in Jackson, the Jaguars scored the first five points of the game before Rancocas Valley took over, ending the first quarter with a 6-point lead and building a 10-point lead at halftime as junior forward Dom Twitty came off the bench to sink three 3-point field goals.

Brandon McDonnell, who has led the Jaguars in scoring at 12 points per game, started off strong and then struggled.

“I thought Brandon battled and worked hard to get his shots,” Fagan said. “He scored early, but in the second half they denied him touches [of the ball] and forced him [to step] farther out for shots than he would like to be.”

But McDonnell is expected to return next season, unlike Connor Saker, who is going to NCAA Division II East Stroudsburg University, as well as Bryan Specht, who scored a team-high 12 points against Rancocas Valley, and Eric Kelly. Reserves Matt Ferro and Andrew Babin will also graduate.

Fagan will build next season off Mc- Donnell, Anthony Skwiat and Brandon Holup. They found ways to win in a season where 15 victories came by five or fewer points, many of them during an unbeaten Shore Conference A South Division campaign, also a first for the school.

The Jaguars improved during the season with a challenging non-division schedule that led to seven of their nine losses, but proved to be a learning experience, particularly against St. Anthony of Jersey City, as well as Group I dynamo New Egypt, in addition to Howell, St. Rose of Belmar and Lacey, and late-season pickups Asbury Park and Neptune.

The excitement came to a peak on March 7, set up by a 46-44 Central Jersey Group IV state sectional tournament semifinal victory over No. 1 seed Middletown North. Against the Lions, the Jaguars came back from a 15-4 early deficit as Specht sank two free throws with :25 left. McDonnell and Holup fired in 13 and 12 points, respectively.

Saker intensified his defense in the second half against Middletown North. Mc- Donnell sank all eight of Jackson Memorial’s points in the second quarter, and Kelly dropped in two huge baskets in the third quarter to move the Jaguars into a position to win the game.

“I think this is great for the kids, the program, the town and the school,” Fagan said afterward of reaching the state sectional tournament championship game. “I know how hard we worked and what the kids did every day. I was not totally shocked.

“We felt if we got you in a fourth-quarter game, we were pretty good there. We trust each other and believe in each other. We knew coming into the [Rancocas Valley] game that we would have trouble guarding the dribble, and we just couldn’t get it done,” the coach said.

Fagan said switching from a man-toman defense to a zone defense to cut off the outside shot was not an option at this late stage of the season. In fact, it was Rancocas Valley’s bullish defense that forced the Jaguars to hurry their shots and take a few steps farther back than usual.

But through it all, the Jaguars found ways to win throughout the 2011-12 season with some luck helping in their three state tournament victories.

“There’s always some luck involved when you are [playing] one and done,” said Fagan. “We’ve had some luck and we made our luck.”

And made for a season of memories.