By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Certain athletes just have a way of making the game look easy. Former Major League Baseball star Ken Griffey Jr. had a swing that looked effortless and fluid, the kind of swing every kid in the 1990s tried to emulate in his backyard. Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana was never fazed by the big moment, completely cool, calm and collected with his team trailing by a touchdown with less than two minutes to go.
At the high school level, it’s rare to see any athlete who makes the game look effortless. Young athletes simply haven’t learned the type of body control necessary for fluid moments on the court or field that usually only come with years of playing the game coupled with natural instincts for the sport. But Jack Sarkos is one of those players.
For the Mainland junior, and the Glory Days Magazine boys soccer Player of the Year, nothing on the pitch appeared to be all that difficult. Need somebody to run under a long pass, take one touch and beat the keeper to the far post? No problem. Need a guy who can dribble his way through two or three defenders before dishing a pass off to a wide-open teammate? Sarkos is your guy. Need a player who can take a direct kick from 25 yards and bend a laser into the upper 90? You got it.
While it may seem as though all those things are easy for Sarkos, anybody who knows soccer knows it takes a heck of a lot of dedication, offseason workouts, dribbling a ball on your foot in school hallways, and countless hours with high level club teams to get that good.
And Sarkos was good this year. Well, that might be putting it mildly. He drilled home 26 goals and added eight assists while leading Mainland to 19 wins, their second straight South Jersey Group 3 championship, and a berth in the state championship game for the first time in school history. His 26 tallies were a school record for a single season, breaking the old mark of 25 set by current assistant coach R.J. Romero. Sarkos also had 18 goals and 10 assists as a sophomore, and has established himself as one of the premier scorers in the state.
“The main thing for me was getting stronger and faster, and building that chemistry with my teammates. I wanted to start varsity all four years, and I’m 3-for-3 so far. I just wanted to work hard. I knew these past two years were going to be big years for Mainland soccer, and I just wanted to contribute to that,” Sarkos said. “I realized last year, with our wins against big teams, but I felt like this year with the senior class we had, we could go even further. When we beat Atlantic City, that’s when I realized this team could do something special.”
Mainland won its first South Jersey title last year with a big group of juniors, and with most of the team being seniors this year, it was state championship-or-bust in 2017. The Mustangs made no bones about their goals of winning a state title, embracing the expectations and pressure under new head coach Chris Meade, who was an assistant to John Napoli last fall.
After an early tie against St. Augustine Prep and loss to Atlantic City, the Mustangs ripped off 13 straight wins. They plowed their way into the South Jersey Group 3 final, where they slipped past rival Ocean City, 2-1, to defend their crown. Then, Mainland somehow beat Toms River South in an epic nine-round PK shootout in the Group 3 finals to punch their ticket to the state championship game, where they lost 2-1 to West Morris Mendham. Naturally, Sarkos calmly converted all of his penalty kicks during that shootout win over Toms River South, and senior goalie Matt Stellitano made a huge save in the ninth round to secure the win.
“We tried to keep the same mentality of dominating the first five minutes of each half. I think it was just a matter of working harder in preseason and realizing our goals. We didn’t want a repeat of last year (losing in the Group 3 semifinals). We always had that in the back of our mind. We knew we had to win in the playoffs. We didn’t get the result we wanted in the end, but that doesn’t take away from a great season,” Sarkos said. “I started in the midfield at the beginning of the season, and it wasn’t working as well, so (coach Meade) moved me back up top to where I was playing last year, and I felt a lot more comfortable. I just played my game. I started getting man-marked a lot, but the thing about that is you just have to keep moving all the time. I told my teammates that if a team was man-marking me, I don’t care if I get the ball or score, let’s just win the game. My coach told me to expect that coverage toward the end of the season, but it’s a compliment. You just have to be smart, understand your surroundings and who is around you, and play quicker.”
Sarkos is one of those guys who is a soccer junkie, and always has been.
“When I was younger, on Saturday mornings I would set my alarm for 7:30 a.m. and wake up and watch three soccer games,” he said. “I think that helped, and watching film last year with coach Napoli helped. He really knows the game and had a big impact on my career.”
His love for the game and his teammates is what will make next season difficult. He was the only junior in the starting lineup this fall, so the Mustangs will have a ton of talent to try to replace. And a lot of memories will be graduating along with this group of seniors next spring.
“My teammates always pick me up, and that helps me a lot. There are 13 of us who have all played together since we were 8 years old and we’ve made a lot of great memories. We didn’t get that state championship, but the memories we have are incredible,” Sarkos said. “I’m just trying to take this all in. People say how fast your high school career goes, and I can’t believe my junior season is over already and I only have one more as a Mainland athlete. I’m definitely trying to enjoy it.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays