The Renegades, who are 9-2, owe part of that success to their learning curve. Learning from their mistakes, they avenged regular-season losses to Cherokee (on Oct. 20) and Washington Township (on Oct. 6) in the playoffs.
"Those two losses had as much to do with our success in the last third of the season as anything we've done," coach Tim Gushue said. "When we reviewed the game film, we didn't think we played bad in the losses, but we did see things that, if we responded more favorably, the game could have gone our way."
Gushue felt his team needed to improve its pass coverage on defense and its execution on offense. To that list he added what the players thought needed adjusting, then set out to fix the problems.
The plan worked. Since their 21-20 loss to Cherokee, the Renegades have put together five straight victories. The defense has shown major improvement in that span, allowing an average of just five points per game.
"It wasn't anything too drastic," senior linebacker Tom O'Connor said. "It was all about getting a better understanding of what we do."
O'Connor said having the defensive line pay more attention to the run had enabled the linebackers to make a bigger difference in the secondary.
"We've gotten better and better each week, and that's what counts," he said.
Shawnee, which lost South Jersey final games in 1995, 1996 and 1998, will need a big effort from its defensive line against Jackson. The Jaguars, under Reggie Lawrence, a former Camden coach, have three running backs who have combined to gain more than than 2,400 yards this season.
Because of that ground attack, the 11-0 Jaguars were tough to stop on the way to their second straight appearance in the playoffs after a 14-year absence. They lost in the South Jersey semifinals to Eastern last year.
Jackson's running-back crew is led by junior Nick Costellano, who has gained more than 1,200 yards this season and leads the team with 15 touchdowns. Junior Joe Serratelli and senior Marcus Clayton give him solid support. Shawnee should expect to see all three, because none of them has gotten more than 15 carries in a game.
Senior quarterback Gary Edwards has rushed for about 500 yards for the Jaguars while throwing for only about 600. However, he has made his relatively few passes count, throwing for 12 TDs.
O'Connor, who doubles as a running back, leads Shawnee with 12 touchdowns. He will face a defense that, like Shawnee's, gets a lot of mileage from two-way standouts. Jackson's running backs also are its leading tacklers. Senior free safety Mark Rodriguez has 11 interceptions.
Gushue said he had tried to make things simpler on offense for Shawnee, discarding some plays to concentrate on a small number that have worked.
"We didn't try to reinvent ourselves, but some of our schemes were probably too complex," he said. "It's hard for the kids to be aggressive when they're confused. We just took out the confusion."
The Renegades' offense now calls for a balance of runs and passes. O'Connor, along with juniors Adam Francks and Chris Turse, do most of the running. The team also has confidence in sophomore quarterback Bill Kurtz, who has thrown for about 1,000 yards. He has shown an ability to scramble out of trouble to get the ball to sophomore Dan MacDonald and junior Dan Kozek.
It has been a season of coming together for Shawnee. No one player has emerged as a focal point. That is the way Gushue and his team like it.
"People ask how the devil do we do it," Gushue said. "There aren't any real stars on this team, but we have been cohesive, and we seem to be coming together at the right time."
Kristian Pope's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Face to Face: Shawnee vs. Jackson Memorial
Team: Jackson Memorial Jaguars
Coach: Reggie Lawrence
Players to watch: RB/LB Nick Costellano, RB/LB Joe Serratelli, RB/LB Marcus Clayton, FS Mark Rodriguez, QB/CB Gary Edwards.
Season highlights: Jackson's 26-21 victory over Brick Township to begin the season ended a 14-year winless streak against Brick and set a positive tone for the season. The Jags found their resolve in a 25-14 win over Toms River North by scoring two touchdowns with less than 2 minutes remaining in the game to win. The 49 points they scored against Marlboro were the most this year by the Jaguars. Jackson beat Toms River North in the playoff quarterfinals and Brick Township in the semifinals. Edwards has rushed for about 500 yards and thrown for 12 touchdowns and about 600 yards.
Team: Shawnee Renegades
Coach: Tim Gushue
Players to watch: RB/LB Tom O'Connor, OL/LB Matt Garron, OL/DL Tom Beine, QB/DB Bill Kurtz, TE/DE Dan Kozek.
Season highlights: After suffering early-season losses to Washington Township and Cherokee, the Renegades have won five straight games, leading them to the Group 4 championship game. On Saturday, Shawnee dominated Lenape, 21-6, to win the Olympic Conference American Division title. Kurtz completed 8 of 13 pass for 179 yards, and the Renegades defense forced three turnovers and had five sacks. Shawnee is looking for its first sectional title. In the 21-7 semifinal playoff win against Washington Township, the Renegades compiled 234 yards on offense. Against Cherokee in the quarterfinals, Shawnee haulted the usually prolific Chiefs offense in a 21-6 victory.
What: South Jersey Group 4 football championship game between Shawnee and Jackson.
When: Saturday, 2:45.
Where: Rutgers University.
Price: General admission $10; students and senior citizens $7.
Directions: North on the New Jersey Turnpike: Take Exit 9. After tollbooths, bear to the right and follow signs for Route 18 North - New Brunswick. Take Route 18 North past the exits for Route 27 and Rutgers University and proceed over the Raritan River on the John Lynch Memorial Bridge (approximately 3.7 miles). Proceed straight at the traffic light onto Metlars Lane. Make the first left onto Sutphen Road.
North on the Garden State Parkway: Take Exit 105 and follow signs for Route 18 North. After approximately 24 miles, pass the entrance for the New Jersey Turnpike and continue on Route 18 North. Follow the above directions for Route 18 North.