The first time it played Milton, Jersey Shore surrendered a four-run seventh-inning advantage. It left the field dejected after losing 11-10.
The last time it played Milton, Friday at Elm Park, Jersey Shore left as District 4 Class AAA champions. That early-season loss dropped the Bulldogs to 1-3 and it seemed Jersey Shore's dominant softball run might be ending. Instead, it appears stronger than ever.
The Bulldogs are district champions for the third time in four years after beating Milton 7-2 in Friday's final and play their state tournament opener Monday against Valley View.
"We got off to a rough start. We got down in a hurry there at the beginning of the season," Jersey Shore coach Chris Glenn said. "But I'd much rather be playing our best ball now like we are."
Jersey Shore is playing as well as anyone at the perfect time. The Bulldogs (15-8) have won four straight and outscored three district opponents 12-2. They have made just one error in three playoff games and played error-less ball for 16 straight innings against HAC-I champion Mifflinburg and Milton. Every batter reached base in the championship and pitcher Rebecca Caputo opened the posteason by throwing 20 straight scoreless innings.
A team surrounded by question marks entering the season has added another layer to Jersey Shore's rich softball tradition. And of all the championships, Jersey Shore has won, this might the sweetest since it came so far to earn it.
"It means a lot because we came a long way. Everyone pulled together and everyone has been coming through," senior third baseman Holly Peacock said. "We struggled at the start and it took some time getting to know each other, but now we're really close and we all communicate well."
"This is a lot like my freshman year when we won. It's so exciting because of where we started," senior shortstop Hannah Yost said. "It's been a lot of fun. Nobody got down. We all believe in each other and we're like sisters now."
Peacock, Yost, first baseman Brianne Brewer and center fielder Kayla Allen are the team's only seniors. All four have ample experience but the rest of the team is young and there was uncertainty entering the season. The pitching staff was unsettled, the defense up in the air and the lineup a question left unanswered since Jersey Shore had so little outside practice time due to inclement weather.
The Bulldogs dropped their season opener 6-0 to Mifflinburg and following back-to-back losses were 1-3 for the first time this century. The loss against Milton was especially tough since Jersey Shore led 7-0 in the first inning.
From potential disaster rose a champion. A team meeting and Caputo's insertion as the full-time pitcher started to settle things and Jersey Shore immediately took off, winning its next six games while avenging losses to Mifflinburg and Selinsgrove.
By the time Jersey Shore blanked Milton 2-0 for its eighth win, it already had avenged all three of its early-season losses. The four seniors who have helped Jersey Shore attain so much success were pivotal to the turnaround. They know what it takes to be great and would not let the younger players settle for mediocrity.
"I want to take the seniors as far as we can. They're pushing these younger girls and they're helping the younger girls," Glenn said. "The younger ones didn't know the older ones at the beginning of the season and we're jelling and we're playing good ball right now. I can't say enough about where we're at right now. It's fun coaching right now. I look forward to getting here."
Jersey Shore played a difficult non-conference schedule and started districts as a No. 4 seed, its lowest seed in nine years. The Bulldogs blanked Danville 4-0 in the quarterfinals before playing tournament favorite Mifflinburg in the semifinals. In a game where the smallest mistake could have doomed Jersey Shore it played flawless and won a 1-0, nine-inning thriller as Caputo threw a five-hitter and Bryce Hillyard hit a go-ahead double.
Many picked Mifflinburg to win the championship, but Jersey Shore did not care. The Bulldogs knew better than anyone what they could accomplish. That confidence prevailed again in the final as Jersey Shore brought its season full circle by dominating the defending champions. Yost, Peacock, second baseman Averie Lorson, Allen and left fielder Jess Allen took turns making big plays and the offense (which has set program records for home runs and extra-base hits) consistently produced big hits.
"Everybody came into the game feeling good and confident. We knew we had to be ready because it's Jersey Shore-Milton and anything can happen," said Peacock, who will play at Bloomsburg next year. "We don't want this to end and we're excited for states."
Jersey Shore faces its toughest challenge yet on Monday. Valley View (21-0) reached last year's state final and is 42-1 the last two years. The Bulldogs are the underdog once again.
This is a role they relish. It enjoys overcoming the odds.
"I feel great going into states," said Yost, a starter on the 2010 team that beat Valley View in the opening round. "For all the seniors this is big. We have had so much fun playing together and we don't want it to end. We want to make it memorable."
They already have.