An 11-point first-half lead had become a two-point fourth-quarter deficit. Time was fading away and so too was a remarkable Jersey Shore turnaround season.
Four minutes remained when Jersey Shore took over at midfield Friday at Selinsgrove in the District 4 Class AAA final. The field position was good but the offense had produced just one touchdown and had been stymied throughout the second half. It was a tough situation.
But Jersey Shore was right where it wanted to be.
Jersey Shore players Troy Rowan, Utoa Agae-Naipo, and Brennan Eiswerth hold their District 4 Class AAA football championship plaque after winning Friday night in Selinsgrove.
The bigger the challenge, the more tense the moment, the better these Bulldogs seem to play. A team that has forgotten about the last few years had little trouble forgetting the previous few drives. Jersey Shore had an opportunity, that was all that mattered. And it seized it.
Utoa Agae-Naipo ignited the biggest drive in Jersey Shore history with a 38-yard run and Logan English ended it when he found Troy Rowan for the go-ahead 13-yard touchdown pass on 3rd-and-long. The defense made two timely stops after that and Jersey Shore did what seemed unthinkable. It defeated defending champion Selinsgrove, 20-16 and captured a District 4 Class AAA championship.
"Everybody realized what was at stake," said Agae-Naipo, who topped 1,300 yards rushing for the year. "We are like brothers and we stuck together. We had good field position and we went out and executed."
As the years go by, that scoring march will become Jersey Shore's version of "The Drive." Considering where this program had been, it might be the most memorable drive in school history.
After going winless last year and winning just three games in the previous four years Jersey Shore (6-6) is now the district's best team. It starts its state championship quest Friday when it faces District 9 champion Clearfield.
"I kept telling myself it's not over, but the thought was crossing my mind," Rowan said. "But once we started driving I knew we could take this and we could make it happen."
Following Agae-Naipo's 38-yard run, Jersey Shore lost seven yards on two runs. The Bulldogs had not completed a pass for positive yards the entire game but were now in a passing situation. A year defined by a rebirth and comebacks had reached its defining moment. And a team that has come from behind to win four times in the fourth quarter again made a big play when it mattered most.
English found Rowan who made a great one-on-one play and rolled into the end zone for the biggest touchdown in program history. Jersey Shore has a special place in program history and English and Rowan will forever be linked after producing this game-winning play.
"I can't even comprehend it right now," Rowan said. "When the clock ran out and we had it, it was one of the most memorable moments of my life."
BALLHAWKS: Jersey Shore's defense was outstanding once again. In addition to slowing down a Selinsgrove offense that routed Milton, 41-18 the previous week, the Bulldogs also intercepted three passes. Defensive end Zach Miller returned one of those for a first-quarter touchdown while Brody Smith added another and Boone Costa intercepted one following Rowan's go-ahead touchdown.
Jersey Shore has seven interceptions in two playoff games and has allowed only 30 points in those games. Smith has three interceptions and Costa two during that time. The defense also stopped Selinsgrove twice after the go-ahead score with Miller making a drive altering sack on the Seals final possession.
The defense has been at the heart of Jersey Shore's worst to first season. It has come up big against three straight quality offenses and plays well at all levels. Defensive coordinator Alex Jackson led Loyalsock to a 2009 District 4 Class AA title and was the defensive coordinator on its 2007 state semifinalist. He knows defense and his players have embraced his system.
Miller, Bryce Charles and Ethan Kutza had big games up front while Agae-Naipo and Dom Loffredo have been two of the area's premier linebackers all year. Throw in a secondary that has peaked at the perfect time and Jersey Shore is playing defense as well it has in a long time.
"Last year was a growing year. It was a new coaching staff and it was getting settled in," said linebacker Cody Bradley, another defensive standout. "We were running a new defense and it was one a lot of people didn't know. This year we are more comfortable with it. Last year it was so much thinking before you tried to make the play. It's not thinking about what you're doing anymore, it's just reacting."
CHANGE IT: Jersey Shore's reward for winning the district championship is a trip to DuBois Friday. Jersey Shore will travel almost two hours and Clearfield about 15 minutes. This is all because of an illogical rotation system which has one district champion play in its district one year and the other district doing so next year. They also sometimes do this in baseball and softball and it makes no sense. Teams should not be punished for winning district championships. If two district champions collide, put the games at neutral sites.
And when it comes to Friday's matchup, District 4 takes it on the chin. Last year was District 4's year to play in its territory, but Selinsgrove was forced to play at neutral Altoona in District 6 to shorten the trip of Pittsburgh's University Prep. Why the hypocrisy? People might say Clearfield gets the preferential treatment because it is undefeated but that is wrong, too.
Records have nothing to do with how the PIAA doles out the locations. Southern Columbia was the state's top-ranked team in 2005 but traveled to District 2 to play Old Forge. Lancaster Catholic was the state's top-ranked team in 2009 but traveled to District 4's Shamokin to play Loyalsock. This is a system that makes no sense and should be replaced with the neutral site system. Come on, PIAA, you are better than this. Get it right.
LITTLE BIG MAN: Montoursville running back Keith Batkowski is only 5-foot-7, 141 pounds but he ran so much bigger in Friday's 34-14 District 4 Class AA semifinal loss to Troy. Batkowski was filling in for injured starters Cameron Ott and Alec Rothrock and did all he could to help Montoursville win. The sophomore ran for 173 yards on 18 carries in his first start, nearly breaking two long runs for touchdowns.
"I came out here and tried my best," Batkowski said. "I tried to get all those (seniors) another game. Everything was for them tonight."
"Keith ran real hard," Montoursville coach J.C. Keefer said. "He's not going to get 30 carries like Cameron or Alec, but he runs tough and we're excited about him and Aidan Plants and Nolan Ott and some of these young bucks that are going to be explosive for us in years to come."
RELOADING: Montoursville loses 22 seniors who left an impressive legacy. The Warriors were decimated by injuries throughout the season but still went 10-2, winning their most games in a season since 2008. Just because those players are graduating, though, do not think Montoursville is going anywhere. One does not become a perennial title contender without being strong at all levels and having promising players waiting in the wings.
The Warriors have a lot of those. Batkowski is just one of many underclassmen who received significant playing time this season. The young players came through in tough situations and helped Montoursville keep winning following those injuries. The three running backs Keefer mentioned will be good and strong linemen like Ben Cerney and Mike Signor are back. Freshman quarterback Brycen Mussina looks like he has a bright future too so do not expect Montoursville to go away.
The underclassmen also absorbed everything the seniors told them and showed them like sponges. They know what it takes and are eager to build on the program's winning tradition.
"The key thing that helps us is the seniors. They're the ones who showed all us underclassmen how it feels already," Batkowski said. "To think about where we can be the next few years because of them is incredible. They taught us everything and this was a great experience for us."
"These guys have gotten great experience and it's not just the playing time they got, but all those things they can take away from the seniors," Keefer said. "I'm excited to get back to the weight room and start working toward 2014."
SO CLOSE: Loyalsock took another big step forward this season. The Lancers won three more games than the previous season after making a four-win improvement last year. That is small consolation, though, for a team that had district championship aspirations. Loyalsock (8-4) nearly reached the District 4 final against Troy before losing a 28-21 last-season heart-breaker to defending champion Danville.
The Lancers led 21-7 at halftime, but Danville's running game took over in the second half. The Ironmen won a thriller against Loyalsock for the second time in 10 weeks after edging it 23-21 in Week 2. Still, Loyalsock came a long way, winning three straight games to reach Friday and, like Montoursville, have a strong core of players returning in 2014.
BACK TO WORK: South Williamsport again went 10-2, captured a NTL Small School championship and reached the District 4 Class A championship. Once again, though, Southern Columbia was a road block, winning Saturday's final, 47-21. The Mounties did move the ball well against the state's top-ranked team and all-state candidate Dominick Bragalone had 346 yards and three touchdowns.
It was another step in the right direction as South tries chopping away at Southern's dominance. The Mounties are 20-0 the last two years against teams not named Southern. They have a bevy of quality starters back next year, including Bragalone. South also will receive a boost with the return of offensive lineman Sam Buck who was off to a dominant start before tearing his ACL in Week 3.
"Me and Sam Buck already talked about how we're going to try and make it to states next year," Bragalone said. "We're going to be tough on the guys and get everyone in the weight room and do our best for next year."
Dr. Masse's Final Top Five: 1. Jersey Shore (6-6); 2. South Williamsport (10-2); 3. Loyalsock (8-4); 4. Montoursville (10-2); 5. Wellsboro (10-1)
Players of the Week-Utoa Agae-Naipo and Zach Miller: Agae-Naipo ran for 77 yards and made the run of his life to set up the game-winning score. He also played excellent defense. Miller was all over the field, returning his interception for a touchdown while adding two sacks and several tackles. The junior defensive end has a team-high 6 1/2 sacks.