JACKSON – The Jaguars are in the midst of their best season since 2012 when that team won the program’s first and only state title winning the NJSIAA Group IV championship before advancing to the Tournament of Champions.
They’ve already clinched their first Shore Conference Class A South title since 2013, going 14-0 in the division while dethroning three-time defending champion Toms River North at the same time by sweeping the regular series with the Mariners.
“That was really big, they (TRN) had been our Achilles heel for a couple of years now,” said long-time Jackson Memorial head coach Rachel Goodale. “Beating them on the road, although it was early in the season, gave us a ton of confidence to finish out the conference and definitely got us rolling from a mental standpoint. We were battle tested and had some good games along the way but that definitely sparked us and our confidence.”
Last Tuesday, the Jaguars (23-3) routed Rancocas Valley, 82-55, in the opening round of the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV tournament. Senior Kristina Donza scored a game-high 30 points with 10 rebounds and six assists to lead the Jaguars.
In Jackson Memorial’s Shore Conference Tournament opening-round 89-42 win over Pt. Pleasant Beach, Donza scored 37 points to become Jackson Memorial’s all-time leading scorer with 1,706 points, topping Hannah Missry, who previously set the record in the 2012-13 season with 1,678 points.
Donza, averaging 26.7 points and 8.4 rebounds, was just named to the Shore Conference Coaches first team All-Shore team and will continue her playing career at the United States Naval Academy.
“Kristina is just an unbelievable competitor,” gushed Goodale. “She prepares the right way and never has a bad day in practice. She does all the right things socially, physically, mentally for her to be successful. She makes everyone around her better and she’s surrounded by some pretty good guards. Her ability to have team chemistry with this group is so important to our success; she’s just an unbelievable motivator and competitor.”
The Jaguars, ranked ninth in the Shore Conference, had a 15-game winning streak snapped in the SCT second round by A North champion Marlboro (21-5), ranked sixth in the Shore. But they rebounded nicely and have won three in a row, including a 59-56 overtime win against perennial Shore Conference power Rumson-Fair Haven (19-8), ranked seventh in the Shore.
“That was a good win (RFH) for us and it tested us four days before going into the state tournament,” said Goodale. “That was awesome.”
Jackson’s three losses this season have come against Paul VI (24-2) – ranked 10th in the state, South Jersey power Gloucester Catholic (18-10), which has five losses to nationally ranked teams and is ranked fourth in the Tri-County Conference, and Marlboro.
“In our loss to Gloucester we played really, really well against a really good big kid so we knew we could play teams that had a big and guard defensively,” said Goodale. And drawing Marlboro (in the SCT) we knew that was going to be a really tough matchup. Their style of play does not match our style of play so I knew it was going to be a track meet. We run a lot of sets and it’s tough to run anything against what they do. But we’ve swept all our losses under the rug and have moved on.”
If the Jaguars can get by No. 14 seed Shawnee, which upset No. 3 seed Clearview in Thursday’s quarterfinals, then beat Lenape in the semifinal, they’ll most likely face top-seeded and nemesis Cherokee, which has beaten the Jaguars in the state tournament the last two years, in the final.
“They’ve been our Achilles heel as well,” said Goodale about a possible rematch with Cherokee. “But we’re just taking one game at a time now. Early in the year we prepared all season for Cherokee but halfway through the season I said, ‘You know what, this has got to be about us, no other team.’ So now we’re just focused on Shawnee which is a very, very well coached team. This is not a game we certainly are looking past at all and it could go either way depending on how we shoot the ball and foul trouble and things like that.”
Joining Donza in the starting lineup are junior guard Rachel Capua (18.7 pts/g, 4.8 rebs/g, 4.2 stl/g) – a third team Coaches All-Shore selection, Honorable Mention Coaches All-Shore selection senior guard Bianca Giordano, who is third in the state in assists averaging 7.1 per game, senior forward Ally Vella (4.6 pts/g, 7.6 rebs) and freshman forward Zoie Maffei (4.2 pts/g, 5.8 rebs/g). Senior guard Mackenzie Dakin and freshman guard Chloe Messer are the sixth and seventh man off the bench.
“Bianca’s a pure pass-first point guard obviously with her assists,” said Goodale. “She’s been playing really, really well and knows where to find Kristina. And Rachel is just a knock-down shooter but can drive too and on both sides of the court she’s the full package. Right now, Kristina, Bianca and Rachel are playing as consistent as they have all year and they’re right where we want them to be.
“Ally and Zoie are role players but they have the fundamental skill sets to score and they get the ball in their hands,” Goodale continued. “They’re overshadowed but they’re pretty solid for us.”
Sophomore Brooke McKown tore an ACL in the Marlboro game and is out for the season and sophomore Amber Williams was injured in the Gloucester Catholic game and lost for the season. According to Goodale, Williams was a big reason the Jaguars hung tough with Gloucester Catholic before getting hurt.
“We have to continue to shoot the ball well and play good half-court defense,” Goodale said for them to get to the sectional final. “We’re undersized against the rest of the section so we have to be consistent on the boards – that’s a key. If we can do that, shoot well and play defense I think we’ll be okay.”
In their win against Rancocas Valley, the Jaguars outrebounded the Red Devils, 46-27, with Donza grabbing 10 boards and Vella 13.
UPDATE: The Jaguars’ promising season came to crashing halt on Thursday with a 53-39 loss to Shawnee, which used a 18-6 second quarter to take control of the game early. In her final high school game of her stellar career, Donza was held to just 13 points by Shawnee, 14 below her average, and that proved to be the difference. Capua led the Jaguars with 20 points. Jackson Memorial held a 13-12 lead after one quarter but it all fell apart in the second quarter.