St. Joe aiming for state title
HAMMONTON—A new season brings some new challenges for St. Joseph Academy’s football team as the Wildcats prepare for head coach Paul Sacco’s 40th year at the helm of the program.
Roster depth will be the biggest issue for the Wildcats, as St. Joseph will likely have less than 30 players in uniform when it opens the season on August 27 against Northeast (Pa.).
“Injuries are a huge concern for us this year. We lack depth at a lot of positions. We need to stay healthy,” Sacco said.
St. Joe’s health will be challenged, as the team faces one of the most difficult schedules in the West Jersey Football League.
“I think our [schedule] is the toughest in the league. If there’s one tougher, I’d like to see it. We play very good teams every week. Teams that are much bigger than us. I just hope we can get through it,” Sacco said.
Despite the strength of the schedule and the short-handed roster, the goals remain the same: win division and state titles.
“It won’t be easy, but it hasn’t been for a while. And our goals don’t change. We want to win our division and win the state championship,” Sacco said.
A year ago, St. Joe had to deal with the potential closing of its school, but once that was settled, the Wildcats rebounded from an opening-night loss to Holy Spirit to post a 7-2 record.
This year, many of that team’s leaders are gone to graduation, and Sacco is hoping this year’s team will establish its own identity.
“Last year, with the situation we were in, the uncertainty, those kids rallied around that and had a very good season. This year, I’m still looking for some leadership, because we haven’t had much so far. We have a lot of talent, I’m just waiting for some leaders to emerge,” Sacco said.
While there are still some off-the-field issues to be addressed, on the field, St. Joseph is slowly providing answers to some of its roster questions.
Senior Ja’son Prevard assumed the starting quarterback duties late in the 2020 season and appears to have the inside track on the job this year. Prevard has the size and arm to stretch the field, and put up some solid passing numbers last year. Challenging Prevard for the starting spot this season is junior Jim Mantuano, who has a strong, accurate arm.
“We’re not settled [on a quarterback],” Sacco said.
“Both kids, Ja’son and Mantuano, have been up and down. It may depend on what we want to do against certain teams,” Sacco said.
Prevard can also play wide receiver, where he excelled last year, while Mantuano is an option as a running back.
St. Joe’s offense is dominated by the run, and this year the Wildcats have some talented backs.
Senior Cohl Mercado ran for 619 yards last season and displayed his versatility by leading the team with 18 receptions for 338 yards. Both those numbers should increase this season.
“Cohl had a great year for us and we hope he can be even better this season,” Sacco said.
Another senior, Kevin Mayfield, will be the fullback. Sacco called Mayfield, “a classic St. Joe fullback,” meaning he will be tough to bring down between the tackles.
“He [Mayfield] is just such a strong kid. I think he’s going to really help us in the backfield,” Sacco said.
Another senior, Tallen Murray, should round out the backfield.
Sacco and the Wildcats are excited about senior transfer Jahmeer Cartagena, a quick wide receiver who can stretch the field.
Jahqir Haley is another strong receiver who will be involved in the passing game for the Wildcats.
The key to St. Joseph’s success offensively will be its line, where a pair of starters return to the lineup.
Senior Bryan Butkus earned All-Conference honors as a center last year, and could also see time at tackle this year. P.J. Williams is a four-year starter who provides strong run blocking and pass protection.
Another senior, Myles Solomon, missed last year with an injury, but returns as one of the top pulling guards in the region.
Also expected to see action on the line are Luciano Mazzeo, Tyler Habersham, Jaedin Manning and transfer DeMarion McCoy.
McCoy, Williams, Solomon and Habersham will also anchor the defensive front for St. Joseph.
Mayfield could see time at linebacker and end, while Mantuano, Colby Dahl, Richard Chandler, Javien Swain and Zach Cruett will also handle linebacking duties this season.
Haley was an All-State performer at safety last season and leads a secondary that also features Cohl Mercado, Ty Mercado, Prevard and Cartagena.
“If we can stay healthy and avoid mistakes, we may win some games. We can’t have many injuries and our kids just have to execute; block and tackle, and we’ll be OK,” Sacco said.
“We have some very difficult games. But if we focus and play with the right attitude and avoid all the distractions, I think we’ll do well,” he said.
St. Joseph opens the season on August 27 against Northeast at Ocean City High School at 11 a.m.