As Jersey Shore coach Tom Gravish stood outside the locker room at Shikellamy, he realized no big halftime speech was necessary. Utoa Agae-Naipo already was delivering a great one.
Jersey Shore trailed the top-seeded Braves by 14 points and a solid turnaround season was dangerously close to ending. Agae-Naipo then delivered what might be a season-saving speech. He told his teammates that football was hard, coming back was going to be difficult and that doing so might be painful. All the pain, all the anguish could be erased, though, if they played 24 outstanding minutes and won the game.
The Bulldogs did so, scoring 24 straight points and beating the Braves, 24-14 in the District 4 Class AAA?semifinals. A week later, a turnaround season has become a championship one. Agae-Naipo is a big reason why. The team's best player motivates with his words, but inspires the Bulldogs through his play. He has run for 1,340 yards and 13 touchdowns while also averaging 7.8 tackles per game, helping Jersey Shore (6-6) earn a District 4 Class AAA championship and first-round state tournament game Friday at DuBois against District 9 champion Clearfield.
"We usually give them five minutes private time and a chance to address their concerns before going in (at halftime) and Utoa came up to the plate and rattled off one of most emotional speeches I've ever seen in locker room," Gravish said. "Utoa is a fine young man. He is so well respected in the school and by his teammates. Jersey Shore really respects Utoa, the whole town and the community."
All those affiliated with and following Jersey Shore football respect how Agae-Naipo plays the game more than the numbers he produces. The three-year senior starter has become the consummate leader. His work ethic is contagious and Jersey Shore has gone from 0-10 a year ago to becoming District 4's best Class AAA team.
Agae-Naipo never takes a play off, whether at practice or a game. He is the anti-Randy Moss who famously said he played when he wanted to. Agae-Naipo attacks every play with a vengeance and has the injuries to prove it. He keeps going, though, and his last two seasons have been the best by a Jersey Shore running back in the 21st century. He has 2,291 yards during that time.
"I don't think I've ever coached a player who goes that hard in practice both ways and on special teams. Every play with him running the ball is the Super Bowl," Gravish said. "He is fighting for every yard and it is paying off."
"Utoa is doing great. He's an amazing athlete," senior wide receiver Troy Rowan said. "He is absolutely phenomenal on both sides of the ball and is a great leader."
A year ago, Agae-Naipo ran for 951 yards and had high expectations coming into the season. He put in constant spirited offseason workouts and was off to a fantastic start before suffering a painful hip contusion in Week 4 against Bloomsburg. Agae-Naipo missed most of the next two games but served as an extra coach on the sideline, doing all he could to help his teammates.
Still, Agae-Naipo is a player, not a coach. He wanted to be on the field full-time and returned to that role in Week 6. While not 100 percent, Agae-Naipo went back to being a human wrecking ball on both sides of the ball. He also delivered another important speech late in the season when Jersey Shore was 2-6. The Bulldogs have not lost since.
"This is great. We have accomplished a lot and this is what we wanted," Agae-Naipo said. "We earned it and fought for it. We kept looking back at 1997 (the previous Jersey Shore district title) and kept talking about how people were going to remember this team and know that we turned the program around."
Agae-Naipo has been at the heart of the revival, playing some of his best football when it has mattered most. He has run for 523 yards and six touchdowns during the four-game winning streak while also playing outstanding against the run and consistently rushing the passer. So often, he has made big offensive and defensive plays when his team needs them most.
That was the case on Jersey Shore's most important drive yet this season. Last Friday at Selinsgrove, Jersey Shore trailed by four when it took over late in the game at midfield. The offense had been stymied throughout the second half, but Agae-Naipo broke off a 38-yard run to put the ball inside the 10-yard line and three plays later Logan English hit Rowan with the game-winning touchdown as Jersey Shore won, 20-16.
"Just because we were down, didn't mean we were out. We had good field position and we knew we could turn the tide," Agae-Naipo said. "I always thought about what winning a district title would mean for us and the community. It's a really good feeling doing it."
Agae-Naipo averages 134 yards per game and has topped 100 yards seven times, including against the best teams on Jersey Shore's schedule. The 5-foot-10, 185-pounder might not have eye-popping breakaway speed, but he runs angry and is effective at running over or around defenders. He has been just as impressive defensively, attacking ball carriers the way he does holes, topping 10 tackles four times and adding six sacks.
Good luck finding a weakness in Agae-Naipo's game. Even better luck trying to find someone to say something bad about him.
"What's really neat about coaching him is his coachability," Gravish said. "He always has a smile on his face. I don't think anything negative has ever been said about him. He really loves his teammates and they really love him."
The feeling is reciprocal. Agae-Naipo reveals his passion for his team and game and winning every time he touches the ball, makes a tackle or throws a block. The next play is the biggest of his life. Even without the numbers, he still is the kind of player every championship team needs. After winning three games the previous four seasons, Jersey Shore is a champion. The biggest prize out there is still available too.
What once was a far-fetched dream, Agae-Naipo has helped become reality.
"Utoa is so good at the sport and being a teammate," Rowan said. "I love being teammates with him and I'm honored to be able to step on the field with him."