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Jersey Shore’s defense is on the hunt against Aliquippa

MARK NANCE/For The Express Jersey Shore players swarm against Lewisburg during a game this season. The Bulldogs played lights out against Meadville in the state quarterfinals last week.

Jersey Shore features several hunters, so some were bummed they missed a prime hunting opportunity last Saturday.

But then the Bulldogs decided they could combine two passions into one. They donned all-Orange uniforms against District 10 champion Meadville, and the defense hunted ball-carriers, the quarterback and receivers all day long. Jersey Shore bagged a prized possession as well, winning the Class AAAA state quarterfinal, 30-6 while reaching a third straight Final 4.

The Bulldogs (14-0) play WPIAL champion Aliquippa Friday at Central Cambria High School with the winner reaching the state championship. The hunt continues for a defense which again has established itself as one of the state’s finest units.

“Some of them said ‘It’s hunting season and we missed buck season, so we have our Orange on (Saturday),'” Jersey Shore coach Tom Gravish said. “That’s what we always talk about when we wear all Orange. We said we want a bunch of flames running around and we want them feeling like they’re running into a fire.”

That inferno has engulfed 14 straight opponents and Jersey Shore leads District 4 in both yards and points allowed per game. The Bulldogs were at their most devastating against Meadville holding a team with more than 4,500 rushing yards to just 150. Kooper Peacock forced a fumble which Tate Sechrist returned for a touchdown, Cayden Hess intercepted a pass that set up a field goal and all parts of the defensive machine clicked together as the Bulldogs held a team averaging more than nine yards per carry to just three.

Jersey Shore scored the final 23 points and the defense did not allow a second-half point for a second straight state tournament game. Going back to Week 8, the Bulldogs have surrendered just two touchdowns.

“We come together more each week,” safety Brady Jordan said after making 14 tackles. “To come together at this time now is a great time to do it.”

“We knew we needed to be tough up on the line,” Peacock said following a 10-tackle performance. “They have a bunch of eye candy in the back and they down block everyone so we knew we needed to hit it hard and hit it fast and that’s what we did.”

That’s what Jersey Shore has done throughout the last nine years. The Bulldogs went from the bottom to becoming one of the state’s top programs and a nasty defense has formed a strong foundation for that remarkable turnaround. The defense has been ranked among District 4’s top units since this run began in 2013 and is a big reason the Bulldogs have captured six district championships, five league titles and six state tournament victories during that time.

Meadville had run the ball at will all year but ran into an Orange wall Saturday. The Bulldogs again played super team defense, excelling at all three levels. They filled gaps, they played aggressive, but smart and they tackled extremely well. Meadville running backs had been skilled all season at gaining yards after contact but Jersey Shore defenders frequently had them going backward.

“We don’t want them passing the 50-yard line and if they do we know we can’t let them in. We just keep that mentality of stopping them,” Hess said after intercepting his sixth pass. “It’s a brotherhood having formed. We’re going to keep using that.”

Football is the ultimate team sport and Jersey Shore so often excels defensively because it plays the team concept so well. The Bulldogs are not playing hero ball and doing their own thing. Each player is focused on his job, his assignment. All 11 players simultaneously doing so has enabled Jersey Shore to hold opponents to just 7.7 points and 146.2 yards per game.

And it’s not like an opponent can just focus on slowing one or two defenders. Everyone is a weapon on this unit. A defensive line which features four new starters has shined, making lots of tackles, pressuring the quarterback well and opening up lanes for the linebackers to fly through. Linebackers Haydn Packer and Karter Peacock each are having all-state caliber seasons and Jordan, Hess and Kooper Peacock have combined to intercept 16 passes.

“We take pride in that,” Kooper Peacock said. “We know defense wins games and that’s what football is all about.”

“Everyone can rely on each other,” Packer said after Jersey Shore defeated Allentown Central Catholic, 20-7 in the state tournament’s first round. “Linebackers can rely on linebackers, the line relies on each other and everyone does their job. That’s what’s great about playing with this team.”

Jersey Shore has let just two teams reach 20 points this season and has surrendered only 14 points in four playoff wins. The Bulldogs blanked Selinsgrove, 41-0 in the district final and have so thoroughly whipped the opposition that the defense has produced more touchdowns (3) than it has allowed. Hess set the playoff tone when he returned an interception for a touchdown in the semifinals against Lewisburg with defensive end Connor Davis adding two interceptions that night. Jordan returned an interception for a score against Selinsgrove and Sechrist lived a lineman’s dream with his return last Saturday.

Defensive coordinator Alex Jackson has helped mold these game-wrecking units the past nine years and has done some of his best work this season with four starters back from the 2020 state finalist group. The names change but the results do not and Jersey Shore has forced 39 turnovers. It all starts with a simple philosophy, too, as Jersey Shore tries taking the fight to its opponents.

“A bit thing our coaches always say is we have to make their offense play our defense and not the other way around,” Sechrist said. “It’s a big role they play with our mindset and how we go about playing defense.”

Jersey Shore also embraces the next play mentality. The Bulldogs might give up points at times, but they guard the end zone like a surly dog does a bone. Meadville twice was in the red zone against Jersey Shore but was denied points each time. Jersey Shore made a similar early stand against Central Catholic. The defense’s signature series might have come against rival Central Mountain when the Wildcats had a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line early in the game but were turned away four straight times as Jersey Shore won, 24-0. A year ago, Hess’s end zone interception denied Lampeter-Strasburg a go-ahead touchdown in the game’s final three minutes as Jersey Shore reached its first state championship.

“Even if they have it at the 5 we know we can stop them. We know we can’t give them anything,” Kooper Peacock said. “You saw that (Saturday) here in the first quarter.”

Jersey Shore fans have seen it for nearly a decade now. The Bulldogs are explosive offensively, but this hard-nosed defense might provide their true identity. That defense faces a huge task against Aliquippa who is both potent and big, but this is a unit which always has embraced challenges like this one.

The Bulldogs know they have done their job well when other opponents offer high praise. They enjoy hearing that, but like winning so much more.

The hunt goes on and the biggest prize remains out there.

“It’s fun hearing other teams after interviews saying there’s 15 or 18 people on the field for us. That makes us feel good and we just have to keep doing it,” Hess said. “We don’t want this season to end yet. We’re just going to work as hard as we can and work hard as a team together.”

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