The sports change, but Jersey Shore athletes sense when the games matter most. And they often play their best when they do.
Going back to last spring, Jersey Shore has captured District 4 Class AAA championships in baseball and football. Now the basketball team is trying for another and, not surprisingly, many of these players helped the baseball and football teams gain district supremacy.
Jersey Shore won another playoff game Friday, rallying in the second half and defeating Milton, 75-66. The Bulldogs (14-9) are semifinal-bound for the first time since 2001 and next play top-seeded Shamokin. It is another challenge but the players embrace them, especially at this time of the season.
Jersey Shore’s Stephen Baier, right, drives to the basket again Milton last week. The Bulldogs are looking for a district championship to go along with last spring’s baseball title, and the football title in the fall.
"Winning breeds winning and the kids are on the ride and I'm hopefully going with them," Jersey Shore coach Butch Barnhart said. "We're peaking at the right time."
Jersey Shore changed its football program's image last fall when it went from being 3-37 the previous four seasons to becoming district champions. Like the basketball team, the football squad entered districts as a No. 4 seed and played its best when the games were biggest. Four of the eight players Barnhart used Friday were starters on that team and five of them also were on the baseball team last spring that captured a third straight district crown.
The sport is different now, but big-game experience in those other sports is a huge asset. It showed against Milton too as Jersey Shore overcame a seven-point second-quarter deficit, made a series of big plays and clutch shots and owned the fourth quarter against a team that had beaten it two weeks earlier.
DISTRICT 4 BASKETBALL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE
Williamsport vs. Hazleton, at Berwick, Wednesday, 7 p.m.
Jersey Shore vs. Shamokin, at Milton, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.
Central Columbia vs. Danville, at Shamokin, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.
Southern Columbia vs. Lewisburg, at Milton, Tuesday, 6 p.m.
Loyalsock vs. Towanda, at Mansfield University, 7:30 p.m.
Galeton vs. Sullivan County, at Mansfield University, Tuesday, 6 p.m.
St. John Neumann vs. Mansfield, at Williamsport, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.
Athens vs. Mifflinburg, at Williamsport, Tuesday, 6 p.m.
Danville vs. Shikellamy, at Shamokin, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.
Warrior Run vs. Central Columbia, at Danville, Wednesday, 6:30 p.m.
Mount Carmel vs. Montoursville, at Danville, Wednesday, 8 p.m.
Mansfield vs. Northeast Bradford, at Troy, Wednesday, 7 p.m.
Millville vs. St. John Neumann, at Danville, Wednesday, 5 p.m.
"We've been there before," said Brody Smith, a starter on the baseball and football teams as well. "We didn't want the seniors to go out like that. We're coming on strong now."
Smith played his best scholastic game, scoring a career-high 23 points, including 16 in the second half, while grabbing six rebounds. Senior Cody Confair scored 18 points and hit 8 of 10 shots while Ryan Eck had 10 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks. Zach Miller, Eric Huling, Stephen Baier and Brennan Eiswerth have started on championship teams in other sports and all four appeared comfortable while being instrumental to the comeback.
This team is altering its image as the football team did in the fall. Jersey Shore won its first playoff game in a non-open format since 2001 last Friday and won seven straight games after starting the season 7-7. At that point the margin for error was slim, and the Bulldogs responded by going on their biggest winning streak in seven years.
Still, it might have been a two-game losing streak to end the regular season that provided a turning point. The Bulldogs lost to Milton and Shikellamy in the final week, but turned those losses into a positive. Practices became more intense and Jersey Shore became a better team as a result.
"The two losses to end season really helped us in practice because we started working harder," Barnhart said. "We weren't just going through the motions. We started picking it up. Sometimes those losses help."
If those losses come in the regular season, that is true. Jersey Shore's boys teams have shown a knack for shaking off regular-season defeats and coming back strong in the playoffs. The football team beat two opponents in districts that had beaten in during the season. Maybe it is fitting then that Jersey Shore's semifinal opponent, Shamokin, swept the regular-season series.
The Bulldogs have seen this before. They know the regular season is history now. They know their legacy is defined by what happens in the postseason.
"We have to keep going and we have the capability of being district champs," Confair said. "This is the best senior year you could have. I wouldn't trade it for anything."
HIGH ON SHORT
St. John Neumann (25-0) remained undefeated last week and made a huge statement, defeating Class AA No. 2-state ranked Loyalsock, 64-58 to capture the Heartland Conference championship. Four nights later, the Knights downed Muncy, 71-57 while earning a District 4 Class A semifinal appearance against Mansfield.
Nasza Short who could hold a big key to Neumann's postseason success and showed how dangerous he can be in that Loyalsock win. Short scored a career-high 18 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and dealt four assists as Neumann snapped Loyalsock's 16-game winning streak and became the first District 4 team to beat the Lancers in more than two years.
It was a breakout performance from a forward that started the season strong before going quiet for a long stretch.
"I've been dying to see Nasza do this, just dying," point guard Richard Allen said. "I've been waiting for him to explode like he has before and now he's finally done it on a big stage and I'm just really happy for him."
Short also played outstanding defense on Omar Little, one of the district's best guards and he set the tone early. Short scored six early points and his energy was a big reason Neumann took control early. The junior's offensive eruption could be huge, giving defenses another player to be concerned about.
Short's brother Alize Johnson delivered another monster performance against Muncy, scoring 35 points, grabbing 20 rebounds and dealing seven assists. Opponents throughout the state know how good Johnson is and he is the focus of all their defenses. If Short can duplicate his Loyalsock appearance that can make that strategy backfire. An undefeated team can become even more explosive.
"Nasza came out really focused. He wanted to show what he can do on the offensive end which he did," Neumann coach Paul Petcavage said. "His defense is always great and that's why I put him on Omar. When you get the offensive end that's big. He's done that a couple times the past couple games and that's a big bonus for us."
Williamsport will be trying to win its third straight District 2-4 Class AAAA championship Wednesday at Berwick when it plays top-seeded Hazleton. The No. 2 Millionaires (12-11) thumped No. 3 Scranton 53-37 Saturday, winning their sixth straight district game. Williamsport is peaking at the right time, winning four of its last five games and lost at Hazleton, 61-53 earlier while playing without second-leading scorer Maleak Benjamin.
If Williamsport can three-peat, this championship might be its most impressive during the run. The Millionaires lost four starters from last year's team and Isaiah Washington and Tyler Gardner were the only returnees with much varsity experience. Through the season's first half, Penn State-bound Washington carried the team but now he is receiving a lot of help. Williamsport is developing a nice-inside outside game and more weapons too.
Benjamin has played well since returning from injury and stretches defenses with his shooting. Tyler Gardner recorded a double-double against Scranton and sophomore point guard Nyric Gosley has come on strong while playing a demanding position in his first full varsity season.
Sullivan County is District 4 Class A semifinal-bound for a fourth straight year after defeating Lourdes, 50-38 last Friday. The Griffins (18-5) meet Galeton in the semifinals and are seeking their fourth straight state tournament appearance. Sullivan continues raising the bar for the program that has captured the first league and district championships in the last three seasons while winning the first state tournament games as well.
Sullivan has won 63 games the last three years but a playoff run this season could be its most impressive after four starters graduated from last year's 23-win team. Players like Adam Szklanka, Bob Polcrack, Sean Flannery, Jordan Beinlich and Bobby Frank have emerged while Conner Wylie has been the team's anchor. Wylie had 18 points and 11 rebounds against Lourdes and Sullivan held a district opponent to fewer than 40 points for a fifth straight time.
The Griffins have won eight of their last nine games and have shown some toughness throughout the season, winning two games in overtime while twice rallying in the fourth quarter to beat Bloomsburg.
Mansfield and Galeton earned district semifinal berths in different ways. Mansfield (17-7) claimed its first berth in three years when its only senior starter Brady Andrews hit a buzzer-beating putback that lifted it to a dramatic 56-55 win over rival North Penn. Galeton moved on after thumping Millville, 54-33.
Mansfield snapped North Penn's nine-game winning streak and closed out a great rivalry with the school merging with it in Hollywood-type fashion. The Tigers also exacted revenge after losing to North Penn two weeks earlier. Galeton (19-4) is one of the district's most improved teams and hammered a Millville team that had won five straight and stunned Sayre in the opening round. The Tigers are playing in the semifinals for the first time since 2003 and have won 12 of their last 13 games.
Loyalsock won its eighth straight District 4 Class AA playoff game Saturday, routing Williamson, 98-45. The Lancers bounced back in strong fashion after the Neumann defeat, building a 38-6 first-quarter lead. They next play Towanda and are seeking their third straight championship. Omar Little scored 20 points and is averaging 21 points per game in his last seven playoff games ... Lewisburg is moving on as well after defeating NTL champion Wellsboro, 64-47. It was an impressive win against a team that had won 13 of its last 14 games. Guards Jesse Flannery and Matt Fedorajka are two of the district's most underrated players and combined for 24 points and eight assists ... Lewisburg plays No. 8 Southern Columbia in Tuesday's semifinals. Southern beat undefeated but untested East Juniata in double overtime.
The District 4 committee did a nice job coming up with locations for Tuesday's and Wednesday's semifinals. Some might complain but the sites are as good and as fair as can be expected on both sides. Here is hoping the good decisions continue and a lot of the district championships are paired together or at least separated by enough time to allow fans (and reporters) to see them all.
Dr. Masse's Top Five
1. St. John Neumann; 2. Loyalsock; 3. Lewisburg; 4. Williamsport; 5. Sullivan County
Player of the Week
St. John Neumann
The senior center appears a lock for all-state first team honors and is making a strong case for Player of the Year. Johnson is having one of the best individual seasons an area player has had over the last decade and was outstanding against Loyalsock and Muncy. The four-year starter had 56 points, 30 rebounds, nine assists and nine blocks in those wins.