The final game just ended last November when the Jersey Shore 2013 seniors started speaking, started planning.
Jersey Shore had just finished an 0-10 season and was riding a 12-game losing streak, but the seven future seniors did not care. All they saw was opportunity. As soon as that final second ticked away against Central Mountain, they knew the 2013 season had started. They were going to be the group that led this program back to prominence.
And almost immediately, they went to work. Now, a little more than a year later, Jersey Shore is one of District 4's best teams. The Bulldogs have risen from the ashes and tonight play at Selinsgrove for the District 4 Class AAA championship. Those seven seniors are a huge reason why.
"You need to lead by example and that's what we did," senior two-way starter Jordan Tawney said. "We went to combines, went to camps and talked to underclassmen about hopping on board. It's hard to hop on to a team that is 1-9 or 0-10 but we knew we could be special so we did everything we could."
Jersey Shore (5-6) is District 4's most improved team and is having its best season since 2007. Tonight, it has a chance to win its first district championship since 1997. The Bulldogs have won three straight games and have set a new tone. A past that included three combined wins the previous four seasons is dead. This is the Jersey Shore these seniors knew it could be.
"I got home last (Friday) night and sat down and thought, Wow, we're playing for a district championship and that's huge,'" senior two-way starter Troy Rowan said. "I couldn't even comprehend it when I sat down and started thinking about it. It's one of best feelings in the world."
Tawney, Rowan, Cody Bradley, Utoa Agae-Naipo, Stephen Baier, Dylan Hamm and Brennan Eiswerth helped create that feeling by believing when so many others did not. While Jersey Shore went 0-10 last year, there were signs of potential, especially with most starters returning. The Bulldogs also would be more comfortable after learning first-year coach Tom Gravish's offensive and defensive systems last season.
The seniors set out to not just change the program's image, but to change the underclassmens' perceptions. The seniors knew it would take a team effort and set the tone, relentlessly working throughout the offseason. They also embraced the younger players with open arms. There would be no cliques, no factions. A big turnaround required not just a talented team, but a close one.
Look at Jersey Shore today and the team seems more like a family. Players held hands along the sidelines during a game-winning drive against Milton four weeks ago. Seniors are as happy when the underclassmen perform well as when they do themselves. The bond was best shown when a senior player told an underclassmen, "when you hurt, I hurt."
Jersey Shore has shed its past and created something good. Those seven seniors made sure it has happened together.
"We talk and preach to the underclassmen how we are a team but we have to be more of a family than a team. That's where we're at right now," Rowan said. "It's not going to practice and seeing people you never talk to. We're all friends and we all know each other. We love practice. We enjoy playing the sport we love with good friends and we have tight bonds."
Those bonds were tested when a four-game losing streak dropped Jersey Shore to 2-6 late in the season. It was the kind of streak that would have sunk past Jersey Shore teams. This time, it just pulled the team closer. Great things could still be accomplished and Jersey Shore answered by doing what it started doing last November. It went to work.
The Bulldogs used a last-minute, 14-play, 88-yard drive at Milton to win 42-39 and have not stopped winning since. They beat Central Mountain for the first time since 2006 in the regular-season finale and then turned a 14-point halftime deficit into a 24-14 district semifinal win at Shikellamy last week. Jersey Shore did not flinch after entering halftime down 14-0 and overcame a fourth-quarter deficit for a third time. The team is talented and well-coached, but it also is tough and resilient.
Now it has a chance to be a champion. That was an idea that seemed so far-fetched a year ago and even when this season started. Now it is 48 minutes from becoming reality. Jersey Shore still might have its doubters but none of them are inside that locker room. Every practice concludes with players coming together and shouting, "state champs." This team believes.
The seven seniors put the wheels in motion and now they have a shot at achieving school immortality. To paraphrase former Philadelphia Flyers coach Fred Shero, win tonight and those seniors, this entire teams, walks together forever.
"We were having some horrible years and we had been a part of them. Getting to turn this program around is unbelievable," Bradley said. "We talk about it every day. We're all great friends and we all stuck together since the seventh grade. Now we're finally the senior class that said enough is enough."
Welcome to the new Jersey Shore.