• Dan Russoman

St. Joe ready for new season


St. Joseph lineman Tyler Habersham-Agbemenu (56) blocks a Shawnee player during last week’s scrimmage. (THG/Dan Russoman. To purchase photos in The Gazette, call (609) 704-1940.)

HAMMONTON—Heading into his last season as head coach at St. Joseph Academy, Paul Sacco is cautiously optimistic about how well the Wildcats football team will play this fall.


St. Joe is coming off a 9-3 season that saw the Wildcats reach the Non-Public B semifinals where they were ousted by eventual state champion Red Bank Catholic.


Several key players from that team are gone, lost to graduation, and this year, Sacco’s third at St. Joseph Academy after 38 at St. Joseph High School, the Wildcats feature a small roster filled with inexperienced players.


“It won’t be easy, that’s for sure,” Sacco said.


Sacco’s worries come not only from his short-handed roster, but also from a schedule that features some of the top-rated teams in southern New Jersey.


“It’s pretty rough from start to finish. We play a lot of teams bigger than us and I just hope we stay healthy enough to finish,” Sacco said.


Sacco made the decision to leave St. Joseph Academy at the end of the season late last month and he is looking forward to his last year on the Wildcats sidelines.


The past four decades have seen Sacco lead St. Joseph to heights rarely seen by any program in the state. The coach is the all-time South Jersey leader in victories with 352, and his teams have won 27 state and sectional titles.


Recent Wildcats teams have featured some of the region’s top players, but Sacco says this year’s unit looks more like some of his early St. Joseph teams.


“We don’t have too many superstars, but there are a lot of what I call ‘St. Joe kids,’” Sacco said.


“Kids who just come out and work hard, don’t complain and are looking to make a name for themselves. They work hard. We’ve been here before with small teams. The thing is they just have to work and get better every day. Do that and we’ll be alright,” Sacco said.


The Wildcats feature a roster with just 32 players, making both health and depth huge issues this season.


“We can’t get too many kids hurt or we won’t survive the season. That and we don’t have backups at some positions, so we have to work that out. But I think these kids will get it done. They’ll overachieve and do what we need,” Sacco said.


Leading the Wildcats this season is senior quarterback Jimmy Mantuano, a player Sacco called “a throwback.”


“He [Mantuano] gives it his best every day. He’s just such an upbeat kid. He’s great to be around and he keeps everybody up and going, even me,” Sacco said.


Mantuano has a strong arm and has looked good in preseason scrimmages. He’s also a tough runner and leads well.


In the backfield, St. Joseph features juniors Ty Mercado, Javien Swain and Jamaad Davis. Richard Chandler and Julius Townsel will also get carries this season.


“[Ty] Mercado, he give a great effort on every play. He’s not the biggest kid, but he plays hard. He know his role and does his job,” Sacco said.


“The other kids [in the backfield] don’t have a lot of experience, but they make up for it with how hard they work,” Sacco said.


Sacco and the coaching staff have been impressed with the work of senior tight end Zach Cruet, another leader on both sides of the ball.


“He just goes out and plays well. He blocks, he catches the football and he tackles,” Sacco said.


Up front, St. Joseph features junior Tyler Habersham-Agbemenu, a 6-foot-6, 340-pounder who has dominated in scrimmages.


“He’s a force,” Sacco said.


Demarion McCoy, who had 43 tackles last season, returns on both sides of the line and will be joined up front by a mix of linemen that includes Christian Glass, Vinnie Corona, Al’massiir Brown and Dominic Daliz.


That same group will play on the defensive line, with Cruet and Chandler leading the linebackers. Devon Theophile joins the varsity for the first time in his career and has been a strong pass rusher at defensive end.


In the secondary, St. Joe will feature Nasir Mahmoud, who will also be a key receiver on offense, Mercado, Davis and James Steel.


Trevin DelGozzo returns to kick and has a strong, accurate leg.


“We definitely have a kicker this year. He [DelGozzo] has been outstanding,” Sacco said.


St. Joseph does not play this week, one of the few teams in the area that will wait until September 2 to open its season.


“We tried to get a game, but one fell through and it just became too late to add one. So, we’ll just play eight and the playoffs, which hopefully, we get in,” Sacco said.


“Having the extra time actually helps us, I think. It’ll give us more time to heal up after the scrimmages and to prepare and practice for St. Augustine,” Sacco said.


As for the rest of the schedule, it includes some tough games.


“It’s a rough schedule, but I’m sure no one feels sorry for us. We’ll make the most of it,” Sacco said.


Still unsettled is where the Wildcats will play their home games.


“I haven’t heard yet where we’re playing. I’m sure our administration is working on that. Hey, we’ll play wherever they tell us to,” Sacco said.


There’s no question where St. Joe’s opener is, it’s slated for September 2 at St. Augustine Prep at 6 p.m.