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Jersey Shore’s 2013 team turned program around and set standard for success

LH EXPRESS FILE PHOTO Jersey Shore players compete against Clearfield during the 2013 PIAA Class AAA playoffs. That 2013 Bulldogs team paved the way and set the bar for the current success Jersey Shore is having.

Before the Jersey Shore coaches could assess a sluggish first-half performance, senior Utoa Agae-Naipo already had taken charge.

Top-seeded Shikellamy led Jersey Shore, 14-0, in the 2013 District 4 AAA semifinals. It wasn’t a terrible showing, but it was mediocre. Agae-Naipo delivered a rousing speech saying mediocre was unacceptable. This team could and would be great.

Jersey Shore plays Thomas Jefferson tomorrow for the Class AAAA state championship. If one wants to know where this remarkable upward climb started, travel back to that Shikellamy locker room seven years ago. A program which had been on the bottom was drastically changing course.

Inspired by Agae-Naipo’s words, Jersey Shore dominated the second half, scoring 24 straight points and winning, 24-14. A week later, the Bulldogs went to Selinsgrove and captured the program’s first district championship since 1997, dethroning the defending champions, 20-16.

A team which went 0-10 a year before and that had won three games in four years was now a champion. The Bulldogs have never looked back since.

“I’ll never forget forever Utoa giving a phenomenal speech at halftime challenging everyone. He said he’s not done, he’s not satisfied with just getting to districts. ‘We’re winning districts and we’re starting it in the second half,'” Jersey Shore coach Tom Gravish said. “Utoa went off on the whole group and we didn’t give up another point. I think that was a turning point.”

It felt like a wall had been blocking Jersey Shore for years. The Bulldogs had some good players, some good coaches, but suffered six seasons of one or no wins from 2001-2012.

That 2013 team emphatically broke down that wall and every Jersey Shore team since has come charging through it. The Bulldogs are 64-22 since 2013, winning four more district championships, four league titles, reaching two state Final Four’s and now Pennsylvania’s ultimate high school football destination.

That championship banner reveals a lot about the 2013 team which ignited this dynastic run, but what has followed since tells more. That group set a standard, sent a message and motivated future players to dream big.

And look at where Jersey Shore is now.

“I take pride in the history we left, but I think I take more pride being in the company of Jersey Shore football,” Troy Rowan, a two-way senior starter that season, said. “It feels great in the back of my mind to know that those who doubted and told us we weren’t going to win have to sit and watch Jersey Shore shock the world year after year.”

“I think I can speak for most of the guys when I say we are super proud of all the things Jersey Shore football has accomplished in the years following our championship,” fellow two-way starting senior Jordan Tawney said. “It will always be very special to know that it was our team that started it, and it is very special to see what the Jersey Shore football program is still doing years after.”

Rowan, Tawney and Agae-Naipo were part of a stellar senior class which embraced their leadership roles and mapped the course for future success. Those seniors displayed a ferocious work ethic, took the underclassmen under their wings and provided the blue print which all future teams have followed.

Gravish and his dedicated staff, including former Loyalsock district champion-winning coach Alex Jackson, arrived a year earlier. Gravish had enjoyed success at Bellefonte and Williamsport and instilled confidence. The seniors absorbed everything said, did everything asked and even during that 0-10 debut season, strides were taken.

The returning seniors turned the coaches’ words and lessons into action and a crucial culture shift started developing.

“The work and effort we put in began immediately after our 2012 season,” Rowan said. “Sensing our team culture change came in the middle of the season. We wanted to prove who we were and every team after that continued to set the bar higher and higher. I’m just glad I can say I was a part of it.”

“For as long as we were in school, Jersey Shore always had a culture issue when it came to football. There was a huge culture shock when Gravish, Jackson, and the other coaches came in. These guys were winners and were willing to put in as much work as needed to get there,” Tawney said. “The guys that I played with, especially in my class, were some of the hardest working and mentally tough kids I knew at the time. We were willing to put in the time and work that was needed. We didn’t want to lose and just be another group of kids who had a losing season at Jersey Shore.”

Tawney admitted, though, the true culture change could not occur until Jersey Shore produced some wins. The Bulldogs began doing so when they snapped a 13-game losing streak with a convincing 33-14 win at Shamokin. Two weeks later against Bloomsburg the Bulldogs offered a glimpse of greatness to come.

Bloomsburg had taken its first overtime play within inches of the goal line. This is where the next play mentality that Jersey Shore embraces today was born. The Bulldogs no longer cared about the past or worried about plays not made. They only focused on the present and the plays they could make.

Jersey Shore made a tremendous goal-line stand and as the final tackle was made the football gods seemed to signal the glory days ahead. Fireworks from a nearby fair shot off as excited fans rushed the field. Current players like Cayden Hess, Connor Davis and were ball boys on that team and were many of the area’s youth players who looked at these improving players as heroes. Something special was brewing and many of those youth players soon were asking for autographs.

“Those (young) guys like Connor Davis were showing up to our games wearing their spikes. They were really excited about watching those guys,” Gravish said. “It’s kind of neat looking back at that year and thinking that those kids who were watching the older guys are now the ones making the plays.”

Before it could run, though, Jersey Shore needed to learn how to walk. A four-game losing streak followed and Jersey Shore trailed current top-seeded Milton in the final minutes a week later. It was there, 86 yards, from the end zone, where Jersey Shore took one small step that season and one giant leap toward the future.

The Bulldogs converted multiple fourth downs on that last-minute drive and Logan English found Brody Smith for a game-winning touchdown as they won, 42-39. Jersey Shore did not lose again until the state tournament, avenging regular-season losses against the top two seeds on the road.

Tawney ran for a long touchdown and Jersey Shore again rallied late, this time English finding Rowan for a late game-winning touchdown against Selinsgrove. The defense made a final stand and what once seemed impossible had become reality-Jersey Shore was the new district champion.

“At the time of the championship, we obviously couldn’t really see what we were starting. It is amazing to be able to look back on how Jersey Shore football was looked at before our 2013 season started, and then compare it to now. Jersey Shore football is a household name now in high school sports,” Tawney said. “That is more important to us than the actual championship. To be able to say that our team was the beginning of what is happening now is just so surreal. But even if it wasn’t for me and the guys I played with, I know that the coaching staff that we had then and now would eventually get the football program headed in the right direction.”

That is true, but the 2013 team expedited the process. It ignited a chain reaction. Every team since has tried building on what the previous one has achieved. The 2014 team captured a league championship and started 11-0. Another district title followed in 2016 and the Bulldogs currently have won three straight league and district crowns.

District championship aspirations have become state title dreams. This journey needed a beginning and the 2013 Bulldogs provided it, authoring one of the great comeback stories in area history.

“I told them at our banquet that year that besides winning the championship they set us up for success in the future,” Gravish said. “We’ve been fortunate that the kids have bought in and that they work hard and listen and that we have great support which allows this all to happen. Coaching at Jersey Shore is special and what a group that 2013 team was.”

Those 2013 Bulldogs walk forever together now. They were more than district champions. They were culture changers, trend setters. Those Bulldogs were role models for future players who have continued skillfully building on everything they watched unfold.

Jersey Shore football has made a quantum leap these last eight seasons. Those 2013 Bulldogs made the first jump and have provided quite a launching bad. Jersey Shore is a state power, a District 4 dynasty. That 2013 team provided the first brick in this championship foundation.

And that means everything.

“I remember everything. We went from getting dumped on in 7-on-7s in the summer to having schools not even show up. We went from our own teachers telling us we weren’t going to win, to seeing their faces at our district championship parade,” Rowan said. “The pride comes from seeing these guys continuously succeed. Once a dog, always a dog.”

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