Gravish used to turning around struggling programs

The entire season has been one big comeback story.

Jersey Shore has gone from winning three games in four seasons to becoming District 4 Class AAA champions. So do not expect fourth-quarter deficits or road games to fluster it. It is a series of comebacks throughout the season that has made Jersey Shore the comeback story of the year.

The Bulldogs (6-6) have won four games after trailing in the fourth quarter, including in both playoff games. They have rallied three of those four times on the road. To paraphrase former Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy, when it seems too tough for some teams, it appears just right for Jersey Shore.

Winning the program’s first district title since 1997 has been great. Jersey Shore doing it the way it has makes it even sweeter.

“We’ve had some incredible celebrations after games and in other locker rooms,” Jersey Shore coach Tom Gravish said. “A lot of the comebacks have been on the road and that makes it more special to do it in a strange place.”

Jersey Shore will trying do so again Friday at DuBois when it plays District 9 champion Clearfield in the state tournament’s opening round.

The latest and most important comeback came last Friday in Selinsgrove. The Bulldogs trailed 16-12 midway through the fourth quarter against the defending district champions. Selinsgrove beat Jersey Shore, 14-6, in Week 8 and had stymied it throughout the second half. Jersey Shore teams of the past might have buckled, but not these Bulldogs. This is a new year and a new team.

These Dogs are champions, and that is how they respond.

Jersey Shore mounted a game-winning drive and Logan English hit Troy Rowan for a 13-yard touchdown to put Jersey Shore ahead with 4 minutes remaining. The defense then made two stands and Jersey Shore won, 20-16.

“We’re a very close team and we stick together in those tough situations. We know we can come back and get it done,” said 1,300-yard running back Utoa Agae-Naipo. “We knew we could come together and get the district title.”

By the time it huddled before its game-winning drive last Friday, Jersey Shore already had become comeback experts. The previous week, Jersey Shore trailed by 14 at halftime against top-seeded Shikellamy. The Braves had beaten Jersey Shore, 29-19 in Week 7 but again, the Bulldogs were unfazed. Following a passionate Agae-Naipo halftime speech, Jersey Shore dominated the second half and scored 24 straight points to win, 24-14.

Look at both those games and one sees a total team effort making the comebacks possible. The defense has been outstanding, making repeated clutch stops while the offense has delivered at critical times. So often in the past, those were the situations Jersey Shore struggled most in. Now they thrive when the pressure is highest and different players keep making huge plays to win games.

“I wasn’t worried at any point of the (Shikellamy) game. They busted two big plays, but then at halftime we fired up and came out defensively and did a great job,” senior linebacker Cody Bradley said. “They couldn’t do anything against us and started moving the ball really well. Personally, I didn’t think we were ever going to lose the game.”

That is possibly Jersey Shore’s breakthrough. For years, the Bulldogs have featured talented teams that played good teams tough. So many times, though, they found ways to lose. Jersey Shore hoped to win but this team expects to win. Suddenly all things seem possible.

Jersey Shore made its first impressive comeback in Week 4 against Bloomsburg. The Panthers had won two straight and led by seven late in the fourth quarter. Again, Jersey Shore fought back and tied it on an English to Brody Smith touchdown. English ran for a touchdown in overtime and the defense than faced a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line.

Against one of the district’s more dynamic offenses, the defense came up huge and stopped Bloomsburg inches short of the goal line, preserving the 21-14 win. Still, there were obstacles to overcome as Jersey Shore lost its next four games and dropped to 2-6 entering Week 9 at Milton.

The Black Panthers were the district’s top-ranked Class AAA team at that point and the lead went back and forth in a wild game which featured several lead changes. Jersey Shore had one last chance but was 88 yards from the end zone in the final minutes. Each play that followed resulted in producing the season’s turning point. English and Jordan Tawney took turns at quarterback, the offense converted two fourth downs and English found Brody Smith for the game-winning touchdown. Jersey Shore won, 42-39 and has not lost since.

More than any other, that game convinced the Bulldogs anything was possible.

“After the Milton game we felt like we’re a great team,” said senior wide receiver Troy Rowan, who had three catches for 94 yards and a touchdown in that game. “That win gave us a lot of energy going into Central Mountain and we had a great week of practice and won that game and that really got us going. Milton was huge for us.”

Jersey Shore’s fighting spirit has endeared it to the community. Its stands were filled Friday and the town is going ga ga for the Bulldogs. Friday, police and fire trucks escorted the team bus toward Thompson Street Stadium. The entire town celebrated a championship a few minutes later as cameras rolled.

For so long Thompson Street Stadium was empty in November. This team disliked that past, though, and did something about it. This is the team that basically has helped Jersey Shore come back from the dead.

“It gave me chills to see how hard the kids have worked and how excited they were and to see how excited the community was (Friday),” Gravish said. “The excitement in their face that was something to see.”