Dog soldiers: Jersey Shore Bulldogs look to each other as they ditch a losing past

Alone, they are just three words on a chain. Putting those words into action, they have powered a Jersey Shore football renaissance.

During the preseason defensive coordinator Alex Jackson came up with the motto “Dog Soldier Football.” Players embraced the motto and soon started wearing dog chains bearing those words. Dog Soldiers were a society of Cheyenne Indians known for their tenacity, fighting spirit and ability to stick together no matter the situation.

And those are all qualities that characterize the 2013 Jersey Shore football team.

A team that went winless last season and that won three combined games the previous four seasons plays for a District 4 Class AAA championship Friday at Selinsgrove. Those three words are the hallmark of a team that has come back from the dead and returned to prominence.

“The dog soldiers were family-based and if you messed with one person, you messed with their whole family and that’s what we’ve tried to enforce, that sticking together as a family all year,” senior two-way starter Troy Rowan said. “Everything is together and it’s about not giving up when you’re down. You get knocked down but get right back up and fight. Dog soldiers were relentless and keep coming after you and that’s what we do on every play.”

That is why Jersey Shore has come so far. The Bulldogs (5-6) are the first since the 2007 team to win five games in a season. They entered the season on a 12-game losing streak but did not care. The past was dead as soon as last year’s final game against Central Mountain ended.

The Bulldogs were one of the youngest District 4 teams last year and were learning new offensive and defensive systems under first-year coach Tom Gravish but they showed plenty of promise. Seven senior leaders knew that 2013 was a new opportunity, a chance to make a huge impact, a chance to remembered. The only thing left to do was get to work. Almost immediately that is what happened.

“I remember when I was a sophomore and freshman seeing the seniors struggle to get the team together. We told each other that we would be the ones to do it and would do everything we could to turn Jersey Shore around,” senior two-way starter Jordan Tawney said. “The team united and all we did was work and we have the best coaches I’ve ever been coached by. Everyone believed in the program and the lifting program the coaches had and everyone did all they could and here we are.”

“We were very young last year but we knew that we had to come out and could do something big this season. That was the mentality,” senior linebacker Cody Bradley said. “We put the past behind us and we knew we had a whole offseason to prepare for this season and make it something great.”

And they have.

Jersey Shore snapped a 13-game losing streak when it routed Shamokin, 33-14 on the road in Week 2. Two weeks later, Jersey Shore overcame a seven-point fourth-quarter deficit while playing without Tawney and dynamic two-way starter Utoa Agae-Naipo to beat Bloomsburg, 21-14 in overtime. Students stormed the field seconds after the defense made a tremendous goal-line stand to preserve the win and that was the first moment where players could feel everything changing.

Still, tough times remained. Jersey Shore lost its next four games and dropped to 2-6. The Bulldogs played all four playoff teams tough but kept falling short. Jersey Shore teams had broken before in similar situations and this was a chance for this team to separate itself and usher in a new era.

“We never quit and even when things were not going well the sideline remained great,” Rowan said. “Everyone was rooting for the guy next to him. We were playing as a unit, playing as a team, bonding together and that’s what we needed.”

“We had some internal struggles but we needed to through that. If we were going to be district champs we had to fight through it,” Tawney said. “We had four straight tough losses but we needed to unite and knew we’d get it done if we kept working hard and believing.”

That happened the following week at Milton. The Black Panthers were the district’s top-ranked Class AAA team at that point and had won four of their last five games. The contest went back and forth but Milton led by four in the final minutes when Jersey Shore took over at its own 12-yard line. The drive that followed provided the season’s turning point.

As players held hands on the sideline the offense methodically drove down the field, converting critical third and fourth downs and scoring the winning touchdown as Logan English found Brody Smith in the end zone. Jersey Shore won 42-39, scoring more points than any Bulldog team since 2008 and all things now seemed possible.

The following week, Jersey Shore thumped archrival Central Mountain, 36-20, beating it for the first time since 2006. Jersey Shore reached districts for the first time since 2008 but when Shikellamy took a 14-0 halftime lead last Friday it appeared it would be a short postseason stay. Instead, Agae-Naipo (1,264 yards, 13 touchdowns) delivered a passionate halftime speech. The Bulldogs did not buckle against the top-seed. Instead, they thrived and dominated both sides of the ball while scoring 24 straight points and winning 24-14.

It was the third time Jersey Shore overcame a fourth-quarter deficit to win. So many times in the past, Jersey Shore lost the close games, struggled to make plays in key situations. Now, the Bulldogs are embracing those moments and consistently delivering clutch performances.

“I think one of the biggest things at Jersey Shore we had always been lacking was that ability to win those tough games,” Bradley said. “In key situations where we needed to convert we have done that this year where as in the past we rolled over and let the other teams have it. We’re starting to capitalize on the things we need to to. When we need to do something we’re finally executing and getting it done.”

They are getting it done together, too. Look up and down the roster and one sees names of players who have delivered key plays, tackles or blocks at critical times. Jersey Shore has some outstanding players but what has fueled this turnaround is all those good players joining forces. Instead of playing as individuals, Jersey Shore plays as one. It is one unit, one team, one family.

That family is expanding, too, as the community has joined in. Students filled the Jersey Shore bleachers against Shikellamy and the pep bus was full. Signs are posted throughout town wishing the team well and the football program has become a source of pride.

“It’s hard to get the student body into a program that lost a lot. They didn’t even want to come to the pep rallies before,” Tawney said. “But they are on board now. They’re seeing what we’re doing. They’re seeing the new Jersey Shore.”

Now the Bulldogs are a win away from school immortality. Jersey Shore has a chance to win its first district title since 1997. It will be another challenge, playing against the defending champions who handed Jersey Shore its last loss, 14-6 in Week 8. That is what Jersey Shore likes about it, though.

Jackson provided the words. The players have put those words into motion. And come Friday they are eager to soldier on.

“At halftime (last Friday) Utoa said the physical pain is going to hurt, that’s football, but the emotional is pain so much worse when you lose,” Bradley said. “But the great thing is when you fight through it it feels so much better. It makes everything you endure worthwhile.”