Bulldogs begin state journey vs. Clearfield

The outside world might have laughed if they listened in, but Jersey Shore players did not care.

Forget the past.

The Bulldogs had high expectations and were going all-in, keeping their eyes on the biggest prize out there. So, following each practice, players gathered and broke things down by chanting, “State champs!”

Remarkably, after winning three combined games the previous four seasons and going 0-10 last year, Jersey Shore now has a chance to make that a reality. The District 4 Class AAA champions are competing in the state tournament for the first time since 1997. They begin what they hope is a state title journey tonight in DuBois against District 9 champion Clearfield.

“That’s what we have strived for the whole season. We have been striving to be state champs,” senior wide receiver Troy Rowan said. “That’s our big goal. We set that as a high goal last December.”

At that point, Jersey Shore (6-6) was a month removed from finishing 0-10. That did not matter. All the returning players saw was an opportunity. They were one of the district’s youngest teams last year and took their lumps but saw promise.

They knew 2013 could be the revenge tour. They knew anything was possible and they went to work. Nothing has come easy this season, but Jersey Shore is where it wants to be. It has won four consecutive games and has turned doubters into believers.

“Everybody on our team has heart. Everyone on our team is a brother. Everyone on our team knows our strength,” 1,300-yard rusher Utoa Agae-Naipo said. “If we play together we can beat any team.”

Jersey Shore started the season 2-6 and that state championship chant seemed as far-fetched as finding Bigfoot. Instead of buckling, Jersey Shore grew stronger. It rallied in the final minute to beat Milton, 42-39 a comeback that ignited a four-game winning streak. The Bulldogs paid back Shikellamy and Selinsgrove teams that downed it in the regular season, taking down the top seed and the defending champion in the process.

Jersey Shore entered districts as the lowest seed but knew that meant nothing. It was just a number. Just like last December, all the Bulldogs saw was an opportunity. And they have made the most of that while becoming one of the best Jersey Shore teams in program history.

“It’s an unbelievable testament to the seniors and all the players. The seniors have been fantastic leaders and all the guys kept believing and they wanted this thing,” Jersey Shore coach Tom Gravish said. “Even when we were 2-6 they weren’t changing their goals. To get here is a tribute to these guys.”

The Bulldogs have overcome four fourth-quarter deficits this season. Three of those comebacks have come on the road as Jersey Shore has excelled in the tough situations that used to dog it in the past.

This team has basically become District 4’s version of Rocky. The Bulldogs have taken their hits, but they keep coming back. You might knock them down, but nobody has knocked them out.

Last week, they hoisted a championship plaque that just about everyone outside Jersey Shore thought would go to someone else. Even more will be doubting Jersey Shore can make state tournament noise. Really, though, that is the way the Bulldogs like it. These underdogs like proving people wrong.

Tonight Jersey Shore has to travel two hours while Clearfield travels about 15 minutes. The Eagles are undefeated, too, but expect Jersey Shore to come out swinging. They knew what they wanted to do last December and now the Bulldogs have their chance.

“Our record shows that we’re 6-6 but I think as long as we keep playing together and keep playing hard and not giving up we have a pretty good chance with anyone in the state,” Agae-Naipo said.

Gravish said he remembers players telling him how opponents used to laugh at them during their rough seasons. Who is laughing now?

It turns out the joke is on all those wishing they were now in Jersey Shore’s place.

Masse may be reached at cmasse@sungazette.com. Follow him on Twitter at @docmasse for more high school football information.