Bulldogs passing the torch of winning

TIM WEIGHT/For the Sun-Gazette Jersey Shore’s Austin Breon jumps for the ball during the District 4 Class AAAA championship game at Thompson Street Stadium on Friday night.

Attend a Jersey Shore football game and one often sees players who participated there the previous three seasons. Those alumni are not their only to cheer. They are there making sure what they started continues growing strong.

Jersey Shore has adopted a “pass-the-torch motto,” and the 2016 Bulldogs have become excellent keepers of the flame. The alumni could smile in approval Friday night as the current Bulldogs made another big statement and again became district champions.

At least a year before many outside its locker room thought it possible, Jersey Shore captured the District 4 Class AAAA championship Friday at Thompson Street Stadium, thumping rival Selinsgrove, 31-15. The Bulldogs, who before 2013 had not won a championship or had a winning season since 1997, have now won two district titles in the last four years, along with a league title and 37 games.

“That pass the torch has been our motto all season, but we want to set the expectation for what it’s passed to and that was a big moment for us,” Jersey Shore coach Tom Gravish said. “Our 2013 group set the standard of what we want as far as Jersey Shore football is concerned and we’ve been able to keep building on that.”

That 2013 championship was as unexpected as any in area history, coming a year after Jersey Shore went 0-10 in Gravish’s first season. This one, however, might be a close second. The Bulldogs lost most of their starters from last year on both sides of the ball, including all-staters Levi Lorson and Bryce Charles. This young team then was ravaged by injuries at times, none bigger than when all-time leading receiver Todd Sanford tore his ACL in Week 7 after posting some of the state’s best receiving numbers.

Injuries to leading rusher Jarrett Guthrie, two-way starter Harlan Baier and emerging sophomore Koby Peacock, among others, tried knocking this championship season off course as well. Instead of giving in, Jersey Shore kept working, kept improving and now is a champion again. Jersey Shore (9-3) has won six straight games entering the state tournament against Johnstown and avenged its last defeat in emphatic fashion, taking a shutout into the fourth quarter in the fourth straight championship between these rivals.

“Any time you lose two in a row like we did to Montoursville and Selinsgrove (at midseason) the confidence is shaken a little bit and adding injury to it is tough,” Gravish said. “We started with a meeting following the Selinsgrove game. The players and coaches talked a lot and we went back to the 2013 motto and we pulled out a 75-foot rope. We said everybody grab part of it and let’s pull as hard as we can and we knew if we kept pulling in the right direction positive things would happen.”

They started happening a week later when Jersey Shore overcame a 13-point first-half deficit against then top-seeded Shikellamy and won 19-13 on a Dominic Williams interception return for a touchdown. The Bulldogs overcame injuries and costly penalties in that game that came to symbolize its season. Jersey Shore only grew stronger from there, earning the district’s top seed, routing streaking Athens in the semifinals and then pounding a team that had won four straight against it over the past three seasons.

“Losing to Selinsgrove was kind of like a wake-up call,” quarterback Elijah Shemory said. “We’re a pretty resilient team. Even if we’re down at the half we’re always looking forward to winning the second half and making adjustments and coming out on top. Different people have been stepping up the past six weeks. It’s different people each game and it’s helped us out a lot.”

Even in years when it won two or fewer games, Jersey Shore often was close to winning many more. The Bulldogs, though, often snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Now those days are long gone. Jersey Shore has become as tough as it is talented and expects to win, no matter the situation.

The Bulldogs have overcome five second-half deficits to win this season and have often been at their best when the pressure has been highest. Players have short memories now and move onto the next play instead of sulking about a previous miscue. Shemory proved that Friday, overcoming four first-half interceptions and playing brilliant in the second half, throwing for 152 yards and two touchdowns to Hunter Frantz.

Frantz, Kevin Titus and Austin Breon all have played big, easing Sanford’s loss. Frantz has 11 touchdowns, Titus caught a career-high eight passes against Selinsgrove and Breon produced a 100-yard game in his first start. When leading rusher Guthrie was sidelined Kyle Tomb emerged and recorded consecutive 100-yard games. Now they are a powerful duo who combined for 182 yards and a touchdown against Selinsgrove. Similar contributions have been delivered on a defense that has not allowed more than 15 points in a game during this winning streak.

“We just had better practices each week since that (first) Selinsgrove game,” said Shemory, who has thrown for a program-record 2,332 yards and 29 touchdowns in his first year starting. “We watched more film and whole team just came together. We’ve played really tough.”

Combine that with one of the district’s best coaching staffs and a perennial title contender has emerged from the ashes. What this season has shown more than the past two is how good the program has become. This is not just a team featuring a good cycle of athletes, but a program that is playing well at all levels. Junior high teams are being taught the same way the high school players are and run the same plays.

And now when those junior high players enter high school they do so expecting to win, rather than hoping to do so. That is why when Jersey Shore fell to 3-3 there was no panic. That is a big reason the Bulldogs again are champions. With so many starters returning next year, the good times should continue. The torch should continue being passed, growing brighter each season.

“It’s a great feeling. We knew we could do it,” Shemory said. “A lot of people said if we’d go 5-5 this year it would be a good season and we wanted to prove them wrong.”

“To go through so many injuries and have the youth we do and deal with some bad breaks and win a championship means a lot,” Gravish said. “You can measure a lot of things in football, but you can’t measure the size of their heart.”