(Our Shore Ortho Senior of the Month, sponsored by Shore Orthopaedic University Associates, highlights a senior student-athlete who exemplifies excellence both on and off the field. We consider things like athletic ability, academic achievement, leadership qualities and the athlete’s impact on the sports teams they play for and their school as a whole. Cedar Creek senior football standout Justin Castillo is our choice for the month of September.)
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
When your parents have ancestral ties to places like American Somoa, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, you have no choice but to work hard — and if you’re going to do something, you better do it right and see it through.
Justin Castillo, a senior fullback and linebacker at Cedar Creek High and a four-year starter for the Pirates, represents his heritage proudly every day, both on and off the field, and has become a coach and fan favorite during his time at the school in Egg Harbor City.
Our September Shore Ortho Senior of the Month is what coaches like to call “a grinder.” That kid who rarely gets his name in the headline but is more than happy to do the dirty work that allows his team to win football games.
He’s only 5-foot-7 but is built like a fire hydrant at 208 pounds, and he’s an absolute monster in the weight room, setting the tone for a team that continues to be one of the most competitive in the West Jersey Football League. Pirates coach James Melody jokes that they’re running out of weights to put on the bars for Castillo to do bench presses, squats and deadlifts in the team’s weight room facility.
“He’s a grinder, not just not just on the field, but he does all the right things off the field, too. When I got hired it was the covid year. I was unfamiliar with really everyone and we were trying to patch together an offense. Prior to my time, the fullback wasn’t really used too much, but I like to use them. We were trying to find the right guy and Justin came in as a freshman and he was just a bull, tough as nails, strong for a 14-year-old kid. Just tough and wanted to do the dirty work. And he found himself on the field as a freshman and he’s never left it since,” said Melody, who is in his fourth season after taking over for Tim Watson. “What he does goes unnoticed a lot and as coaches we talk about it all the time. He’s a great linebacker and he does a lot for us defensively making tackles and filling holes and gaps. You know what really doesn’t get noticed is what he does for us on the offensive side of the ball, playing that fullback position. In today’s game it’s just not seen anymore. If you go back to the 90s, fullbacks were guys people talked about a lot more. He’s kicking out big defensive ends — and with the schedule that we play, we’re not playing weak guys. We’re playing some big dudes and he’s isolated on defensive ends and linebackers. He’s doing things that make our offense go.
“He a coaches dream. Whatever you ask him to do, he’s going do it — and he’s going do it not only at 100 percent, but at a high level.”
“My brother played so that inspired me. Throughout my years here at Cedar Creek it’s been a great experience. I really thought it was going take like until my sophomore (to start on varsity) because I was undersized, but I just showed off what I could do at practice, 100 percent every snap. And that got me looked at by the coaching staff,” Castillo said. “The weight room helped me a lot. I got a lot stronger and bigger. I lift a lot. I just always go by that thing we call ‘E.A.T. (Effort, Attitude, Tenacity)’ and I always keep that mentality every time. I always go hard, even away from the field, because that impacts the game and how you play. I always kept that mentality that you push through everything, have good practices. My goal is to win a state championship.”
Cedar Creek is 5-1 and challenging for a WJFL Independence Division title, and Castillo is a big reason why. He has 40 tackles, including four for loss, and a forced fumble from his middle linebacker position, and with Castillo opening up holes for the running backs the Pirates have rushed for more than 1,000 yards in the first six games of the season. For his career, Castillo has rushed the ball only nine times, but four times he’s found the end zone for touchdowns. He also has more than 120 tackles.
“I love (playing fullback). I feel like colleges should use fullbacks more. I love blocking, plus I get the ball sometimes. I just love playing fullback. I love hitting and I love contact,” Castillo said. “What really motivates me is I always wanted to go to college because my parents never got the chance. So I just want to stay on that path, and especially that sports path because my dad played football, my brother played football — he had to stop, though, because he tore his knee. So I just want to do something for myself and I really want to help my family out.”
Melody believes Castillo will get the chance to play at the college level because aside from his football talents, he’s an outstanding student and has become a great leader and role model during his time in maroon-and-green.
“He’s such a great kid off the field. He’s short in stature but when you see him in the weight room he’s the strongest kid that I’ve had. You’re talking about a kid who bench presses over 340 pounds, squats over 500 and he and he deadlifts over 600. So he’s a he’s a strong kid. But he’s like a gentle giant off the field, always smiling. He has an infectious smile that that kids gravitate to, and it helps the younger kids to know they have a leader in place who is going to do all the right things, but you can go and talk to him and pick his brain at any point,” Melody said. “He’s a leader around the building and his interaction with teachers — I always love when teachers come up to me and talk about my kids in in a great light, and they always say Justin is such a pleasure to have in class because he engages in conversation and he respects everyone’s opinions during those conversations. He makes for a good environment in the classroom. As a coach, that’s what makes me the most proud is when I have other teachers come up to me and say, ‘hey, I have Justin in class and he is a pleasure to have.’ That’s something I get with him from almost every teacher.
“The Castillo family, they come from a line of hard working people, and really good people,” Melody continued. “He’s going to go to college and play football, and we’re going find him a good home and that’s going to be a well-deserved home and they’re going to be lucky to get a kid like him in their program. He’s going to be successful in whatever he does just because he’s so driven and he wants to be successful. He’s the kind of kid who goes to his tutors to get good grades, he gets into the film room to make sure he’s successful on the football field, and that’s just going to carry over for what he’s going to do in the future, in life. I’m excited to see what his future has in store. It’s going to be a successful one, there’s no doubt in my mind.”
Castillo credited his parents and the way they have raised him for all his success.
“My parents are tough on me because they want to see me have success. They’re always going to be tough on me. But at the end of the day it’s good for me because they’re trying to push me to do more, to do great things in life,” he said.
Melody said the greatest value Castillo brings to the Pirates’ roster is that the coaches know he’s going to put himself in position to make positive plays for his team. He’s going to prepare his body, he’s going to study film, he’s going to rely on his instincts and he’ll play the same way whether the Pirates are ahead by 28 points or down by 35.
“Having a guy like him is a calming effect. That’s what it is. When we need a tough two or three yards, if he’s not getting the ball, we know that he’s going to make a hole for us to get that first down. When teams are getting downhill on us and we need to get a stop defensively we know he’s going to fill the gap, fill the hole and do it at a high level — so it’s a calming effect. As a coach, knowing that you have a kid in the middle of everything helps a lot,” Melody said. “He is a vocal leader. He gets amped up, he’s a rowdy kid. But when you talk about leading by example, that’s the kid you look at. I mean, he’s going a million miles an hour and he’s doing it on every play and doing it at a high level. That’s the kind of kid you want to look at and say, ‘OK, I want to model my game after him.’”
During Castillo’s freshman year, 2020, the season was shortened due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the Pirates went 3-5, but won three of their last five games. That carried over into a sophomore year in which his team went 13-0 and won a regional championship, beating Camden Eastside (then known as Woodrow Wilson) 35-34. As a junior, Cedar Creek was in a rebuilding stage and went 4-7, and now during his senior year the Pirates are flying high again.
Melody believes the best is yet to come for this year’s team, and Castillo will be right in the middle of it all.
“I’ve been blessed. Over the last four years we’ve had some really good success, obviously in 2021 having an astronomical amount of success. I honestly get the same feel for this team in terms of they just want it, and Justin’s at the at the head of that, but he has other seniors around him with guys like Alim Parks, Billy Smith, Jamal McClelland, Amon McLaughlin — I can go on and on about the kids from this senior class. I’m really proud of where they’re at, and Justin is at the top of that list of being a leader,” Melody said. “He’s been through the grind, he’s played in so many big football games and he’s done it at a high level. He has definitely made his mark in this program and he has definitely elevated this program just by doing the little things right and being that gritty player who has scratched and clawed for everything that he gets. And I think that’s what separates our program from other programs is that we’re what I would call a blue-collar program. We just want to get to work and do it at a high level and if we fail, we’re going to fail at 100 percent and we’re going to learn from it. But we’re always going to get back to work the next week and try to figure it out. He definitely embodies our program and what we teach.
“I couldn’t be more proud of a kid like Justin. I’m excited to have more Justin Castillos in the future. I’ve enjoyed my time with him and I’m going to love him forever because of everything that he’s given to this program.”
Castillo said he’s savoring every moment of this senior year because he only has a handful of games left to play as a high school football player.
“Winning a (regional) championship was the best feeling ever. It just really stood out and it always made me push harder in the offseason because my goal with my team is to win a state championship now,” he said. “I always take practice seriously. It’s my senior and my coaches always tell me like the clock is ticking, there’s no turning back. So I always take practice very seriously, even if I have a bad day, I always take it 100 percent because I don’t want to look back and say, ‘you know, I wish I did better at this practice or that practice.’”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays