Jersey Shore football falls in PIAA Class AAAA championship to Thomas Jefferson
HERSHEY — The end zone lay 80 yards away. Less than three minutes remained, Jersey Shore was staring at a 14-point deficit against a state dynasty and had gained 25 yards the entire game.
And it still came within one play of possibly winning the Class AAAA state championship.
Jersey Shore mounted an 80-yard touchdown drive, recovered the onside kick and was a tipped pass away from making it a one-point game in the final seconds. Ultimate victory proved just elusive, but the Bulldogs were never beaten Saturday at Hershey Park Stadium. Against the odds, Jersey Shore made a stirring comeback, went the distance with perennial powerhouse Thomas Jefferson and nearly made history again.
Thomas Jefferson won its fifth state championship. Jersey Shore won tremendous statewide respect.
Conner Murga broke up a fourth-down pass from the 21-yard line on the game’s final play as Thomas Jefferson held off the furious rally and captured another state championship, edging Jersey Shore, 21-14. The Jaguars (10-1) repeated as state champions and won a wildly entertaining game which had both team’s fans providing standing ovations afterward. Jersey Shore (10-1) made its state final debut a memorable one and was the first team in five TJ state finals which did not lose via blowout.
That is little consolation right now but the Bulldogs certainly delivered a championship-worthy performance.
“It’s not knowing how close you came, it’s knowing I’m not taking anything back with me,” two-way senior lineman Colin Samar said after making six tackles and blocking a punt. “I left it all out there on the field. My men did, too. We went out with a bang.”
“It’s hard enough to get here and to have a game like 21-14 against a powerhouse like Thomas Jefferson is insane,” defensive end Dalton Dugan said after making five tackles and returning an interception for a touchdown. “I’m sad that it’s over. I played with every one of these kids since I was a little kid, but we came here and did what no other team around the area did and that’s great.”
Jersey Shore had won one game in four years before 2013 and now has played in consecutive Final Fours, reached a state final and won five district championships in five seasons. The Bulldogs also won their third straight district and league championship crowns this year. They have not yet completed this remarkable turnaround journey, but the bar keeps being raised higher.
The performance Jersey Shore produced both yesterday and all year soon will never be forgotten by this resilient group or by the fans who lined the streets yesterday morning, cheering as they sent their team off.
“It’s special. It’s one of the most special seasons I’ve ever been involved with because of all the challenges they had to go through with regards to COVID stuff, to getting shut down, to being restricted with what we could do with them,” Jersey Shore coach Tom Gravish said. “I knew our kids would battle to the end no matter the circumstance. It’s just not our kids’ style to back down. That’s not what they’re about. They don’t have any quit in them and that’s because of the way they were raised in a good community, the blue collar community we live in.”
Jersey Shore had to summon all that toughness when it regained possession with 2 minutes, 58 seconds remaining, trailing 21-7. TJ had outgained Jersey Shore 343-25 at that point, but a series of timely defensive stops and Dugan’s 48-yard third-quarter interception return kept it alive. Quarterback Branden Wheary had been sacked eight times and another state title trophy was all but in TJ’s hands.
Then Cayden Hess drew a pass interference penalty. Then Owen Anderson caught a 12-yard pass. Then Wheary somehow flipped the ball to Cam Allison while being tackled and kept the drive alive. Suddenly, Jersey Shore fought off the ropes and was at the 1-yard line. Wheary found Anderson for a touchdown on the ensuing play and Jersey Shore pulled within 21-14 with 34 seconds remaining.
It felt like a perfect time to salute a gutsy team which made a valiant comeback, but these pesky Bulldogs never doubted they could still win. And when they recovered Allison’s onside kick at the TJ 48 it started feeling like this impossible dream might become reality.
That went double when Hess made a brilliant, circus-like catch for 27 yards on the next play. Jersey Shore was on its 21 with 21 seconds remaining and one timeout. Following two incompletions, Wheary threw an outstanding deep ball toward the left pylon and for a split second it looked like Dugan might have a touchdown. At the last second, however, Rex Miller was able to get his fingers on the ball and knock it to the ground.
“I saw it in my eyes. It was a nice pass,” Dugan said. “I went to grab it and he just came down and had a nice play on the ball there and knocked it out of my hands.”
Four seconds remained. Wheary looked toward the end zone, but Murga came charging threw the line and deflected the ball as Wheary released it. It fell incomplete a few yards downfield as TJ players stormed the field and Jersey Shore players fell to the ground with one part shock and one part exhaustion.
Had Jersey Shore scored, Gravish said he would have went for two and the win.
“We would have tried to win it all right there on the spot. That was my feeling and the coaches were all for it. We just ran out of time,” Gravish said. “A couple of them are really disappointed right off the bat, but I think they all understand what they did. We always say leave no regrets, let it all hang out there, leave it all out on the field and, boy, they sure did.”
“My father (Mike) lost here with South Williamsport in 1993 and I wanted to one up him forever and we almost did,” Samar said. “I think if we came back and put the ball in the end zone I don’t think we would have lost that game.”
Murga scored a first-quarter 3-yard touchdown and Jake Pugh found Youngstown State-bound Preston Zandier for a 28-yard touchdown on the second quarter’s first play as TJ took a 14-0 halftime lead. The Jaguars appeared on the verge of breaking it open several times, but Jersey Shore repeatedly found ways to slow an offense averaging 41.6 points per game.
Then did not just prevent points, but produced them. In a near replay of eight nights earlier, Dugan jumped a flare route and went 48 yards for a touchdown that made it, 14-7. Dugan was never touched as he sprinted down the right sideline, made an excellent cut near the 20 and reached the end zone again as the Black and Orange-clad fans nearby jumped for joy.
“It was crazy,” Dugan said. “I saw the quarterback’s eyes go right to the running back and I figured if I can get a jump on it I would have a chance.”
TJ answered with a 19-play drive, but Jersey Shore again delivered, making its fifth stop inside the 10 during states. Gabe Packer (7 tackles) jarred the ball loose at the 1 and younger brother Hayden (7 tackles) recovered at the 2. Three plays later, though, Jersey Shore was facing a fourth-and-1 at its 11. The Bulldogs lined up to go for it, but after trying to draw TJ offsides were going to call timeout and punt.
Instead the ball was snapped and a fumble ensued with TJ recovering at the 3. DeRon VanBibber scored on the next play, making it 21-7 and when McClain Flinn intercepted a pass at midfield a series later with just 5:30 remaining, it felt like the game was over.
But this is Jersey Shore and it again flourished where many others have failed. The defense stopped TJ at its 48 and forced a punt which nearly was downed at the 1 before rolling into the end zone for a touchback. From there, Wheary (18 of 35, 164 yards) went into Joe Montana-mode and the comeback was on.
“Even the Pottsville (triple overtime state quarterfinal) win last year, you can’t ever count us out when we’re down. Sometimes we fight back even harder when we’re down,” Dugan said. “Until the game is over we think we can find a way to win, but we just came up short tonight. If there’s a minute left on that clock at the end itás a different ball game.”
TJ never delivered that knockout blow and ultimately may have been saved by the bell. Whatever the case, Jersey Shore showed in defeat what has made it victorious so many times. The Bulldogs were just the third area team to compete in the state final, South (twice) and Montoursville being the others. They also were the first team to reach a final since 1997 and came mighty close to becoming the first state champion.
“Football is my life. It’s kind of sad knowing I’ll never put these pads on again but it’s kind of cool knowing this is my family and this is what I was able to do while there are thousands of other kids sitting at home right now,” Samar said. “I dreamed about this game since I was 6. I’ll tell my kids about this.”
Thomas Jefferson 21, Jersey Shore 14
Jersey Shore 0 0 7 7ä14
T. Jefferson 7 7 0 7ä21
T–Conner Murga 3 run (Jack Sella kick), 5:56
T–Preston Zandier 28 pass from Jake Pugh (Sella kick), 11:52
J–Dalton Dugan 48-yard interception return (Cam Allison kick), 2:44
T–DeRon VanBibber 4 run (Sella kick), 5:48
J–Owen Anderson 1 pass from Branden Wheary (Allison kick), :34
TEAM STATISTICS J T
First Downs 11 18
Rushes-yards 19-(-62) 43-163
Passing yards 164 180
Total yards 102 343
Comp-Att-Int 18-35-1 13-27-1
Fumbles-lost 2-1 1-1
Penalties-yards 5-17 8-81
RUSHING: Jersey Shore, Cam Allison 6-8; Hayden Packer 1-1; Owen Anderson 3-(-5); Brady Jordan 1-(-7); Branden Wheary 8-(-59). TJ, Connor Murga 25-117, TD; DeRon VanBibber 12-31, TD; Jake Pugh 6-15.
PASSING: Jersey Shore, Wheary 18-35-1, 164 yards, TD.
RECEIVING: Jersey Shore, Anderson 6-56, TD; Cayden Hess 5-55; Dalton Dugan 3-29; Kooper Peacock 3-26; Jordan 1-(-2). TJ, Preston Zandier 7-95, TD; Ian Hansen 6-85.
INTERCEPTIONS: Jersey Shore, Dugan. TJ, Flinn McClain.
Records: Thomas Jefferson 10-1. Jersey Shore 10-1.