Jersey Shore advances past Shikellamy

SUNBURY – The venue and the two teams were the same. However, the rewards this time were a little different.

In the seventh game of the regular season, Jersey Shore and Shikellamy met in a Heartland Division I contest with the Braves winning 29-19 at Shikellamy Stadium.

Friday night the same two teams met each other again, but this time it was in the semifinal round of the District 4 Class AAA playoffs.

When the smoke cleared from Shikellamy Stadium Friday night, the Bulldogs celebrated an exciting come-from-behind win to advance to the district title game at Selinsgrove with a 24-14 win.

“We had four exceptional practices this week and you can just see the confidence building up in these guys,” said Jersey Shore head coach Tom Gravish. “I think with this win tonight and a little more confidence we will be ready to play Friday night. We understand they (Selinsgrove) will be tough for us, but our guys will be ready because it is for all of the marbles. We have nothing to lose, we are going for broke, nobody expected us to be here and we are just trying to build a football team like Selinsgrove has put together.”

The Braves won the first half as they scored a pair of touchdowns for a 14-0 lead at halftime, but the second half totally belonged to the Bulldogs as they dominated the action on both sides of the line of scrimmage as well as the scoreboard.

Giving his team several early opportunities, Brody Smith intercepted a pair of Brave aerials, but the Bulldogs couldn’t score in the first half. Boone Costa also came up with an interception as the Bulldogs picked the Braves’ pockets three times.

But then in the second half, it was time for the Shore defensive unit to continue its solid play while the Bulldog offense got untracked. The remainder of the game was all Orange & Black.

On offense, Shore was led by Utoa Agae-Naipo, who finished with 124 yards, 96 in the second half, and a touchdown.

“I lost the ball a couple of times, but I knew it was crucial for me to keep my head in the game to help us get this win and move to the district title game,” said Agae-Naipo. “We had some bumps in the road toward the end of the year, but that is when we actually came together and became a unit, not just individuals out there playing football. That is why we are here tonight and right now, it feels real good.”

Complementing Agae-Naipo’s effort was another senior as Jordan Tawney returned to the Shore lineup last week to help the Bulldogs in a big win over Central Mountain last week and in last night’s win, Tawney finished with 35 yards on just five carries, but several of his runs were in crucial third-down situations. He also made his presence known on defense with a couple of big plays to help keep the Braves short of the sticks before scoring the Bulldogs’ final touchdown.

“Right now, everything feels great,” said Tawney. “I had so much faith in my teammates to execute things, even when I was out of the lineup. I knew I had to stand on the sidelines and support my team the best I could.”

Doing most of his damage out of the wildcat set, Tawney gave a lot of credit to the offensive line for providing him with room to run.

“The line takes a lot of abuse, especially when things don’t go well, but most people don’t realize how hard they work,” Tawney said. “When we have success I give full credit to them because without their effort, we couldn’t be successful.”

Up next is Selinsgrove, which defeated Shore 14-6 a few weeks back at Thompson Street Stadium.

“It feels amazing to be playing for a district title,” Tawney said. “Selinsgrove hasn’t seen the Jersey Shore team that is playing the way we are playing right now. This team has worked so hard since December to get to play for this district title, that is our number one goal and that is what we are going to get next week.”

Shaking off the frustrating opening 24 minutes, the Bulldogs took advantage of a blocked punt for good field position to be able to score their first touchdown, Bryce Charles carrying the mail into the end zone from seven yards out. Logan English rushed for the two-point conversion and four minutes into the third period, the Shikellamy lead had been cut to 14-8.

The Bulldog defensive unit stepped up to record a safety six minutes later to make it 14-10 Shikellamy. Keeping the pressure and holding the Braves at bay all over the field, that is when Agae-Naipo and Tawney scored their touchdowns.

Agae-Naipo gave Shore the lead for keeps 30 seconds into the final period, the senior tailback tacking on the two points after the touchdown with a rush.

After Tawney’s run to paydirt, the conversion attempt was no good, but that is then the Bulldog defensive unit took over again to shut down the Braves as the Bulldogs prevailed by the final of 24-14, the same margin of victory that the Braves enjoyed in the first meeting.

As for what he said to his team at halftime, Gravish said that was taken care of by Agae-Naipo before he got into the locker room.

“I have to give Utao a lot of the credit,” said Gravish. “We usually give our players four or five minutes by themselves before we talk to them at halftime. When we came in, he was already delivering one of those State of the Union to the point addresses.”

So what was the difference between the first and second half?

“We felt that if we could stop them in their first series and get out pro-I offense we felt like we could win the football game.” said Gravish. “When we took the football and drove down the field to score, I felt pretty confident that we were going to win the game. We started playing (Shik running back Dwayne) Pepper better and we picked up the heat on their quarterback. We got a nice sack and that got us going. We believe in these kids and we are getting better and better every day because the confidence keeps improving from week to week.”