The Southern Regional High School football team felt overwhelmed at times last season.
The 2010 Rams were mostly sophomores and inexperienced juniors. Southern finished 5-5, but three of those defeats were by more than 20 points.
Those tough times were worth it, however. A year older and stronger, the more mature Rams (3-1) are a Shore Conference A South Division and South Jersey Group IV contender this season.
The Rams host Jackson Memorial (4-0) at 7 p.m. Saturday in a game that will help determine the A South champion. Southern is No. 10 in The Press Elite 11.
"It was bad last year, but we've got all that experience now," Southern running back T.J. Bellissimo said. "Being exposed (to varsity football) last year was huge."
Southern has had success under coach Chuck Donohue, who is in his 14th season at the school. The Rams reached the South Jersey Group IV final in 2008, losing to Mainland Regional 21-14.
But Southern hasn't won or shared a Shore Conference Division title since 1972.
The 2011 Southern team is much more diverse offensively than past Rams teams. Southern has more team speed than it ever has.
Quarterback Dan Higgins has completed 63 percent of his passes for 569 yards and five touchdowns. Bellissimo has rushed for 345 yards and five touchdowns.
Receivers Alec Morris, Mike Gesicki and Kevin Barreau have each caught touchdown passes.
Jackson emerged as one of the Shore Conference's best when it beat perennial power Toms River North 42-10 on Sept. 24. Jackson quarterback Jimmy Celidonio ran for 150 yards, while Jaguars running back Brandon Winston rushed for two scores.
The Jackson defense allows just 7.8 points per game.
"I like physical teams," Donohue said, "and I think Jackson is that. We need to tackle. (Winston) is extremely explosive. He finishes runs and (Celidonio) can make you miss."
Meanwhile, Southern has won three straight. The Rams edged Brick Memorial 21-20 last Saturday in a game decided by a missed Brick extra point.
Donohue said the Rams didn't play a crisp game against Brick Memorial and his players know it.
"We all know if we want to win Saturday we have to cleanup the little stuff, those little mistakes, those turnovers," Bellissimo said. "That has to be cleaned up if we want to beat Jackson."
Southern and Jackson are traditional rivals. They played the night before Thanksgiving until 2006. The Rams have beaten Jackson four straight years but Jackson victories over the Rams in 2004 and 2005 prevented Southern from winning or sharing division titles.
Southern often bumps up against Jackson in several sports, most notably wrestling and girls track and field.
"Every (Southern) team has had to beat them if they want to win a title," Donohue said. "Southern vs. Jackson is a big game to the kids."
The Rams hope to draw a crowd that fills the bleachers Saturday. The school has plugged the game during morning announcements this week. Fliers have been placed in the Southern hallways.
The Rams' three-game winning streak should also attract fans.
"We're trying to have as much people come and get that atmosphere real big," Bellissimo said.
Contact Michael McGarry:
Jackson Memorial (4-0) vs. Southern Regional (3-1)
When/where: 7 p.m. Saturday at Southern Regional, Stafford Township
Why this game is important: Both teams are undefeated in Shore Conference A South. Southern is No. 10 in The Press Elite 11.
Last five meetings:
2010: Southern 27, Jackson 20
2009: Southern 34, Jackson 6
2008: Southern 14, Jackson 0
2007: Southern 6, Jackson 0
2006: Jackson 13, Southern 7
Jackson: Brandon Winston, CB/RB, 437 rushing yards, five touchdowns; James Cowan, DE; Jim Celidonio, QB, 315 rushing yards.
Southern: Dan Higgins, QB, 5 TD passes; T.J. Bellissimo, RB, seven touchdowns; Alec Morris, WR/DB.