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Chris Masse on football: Jersey Shore’s program is defined by fighters

The seeds were planted six years ago.

That season a Jersey Shore team that adopted the nickname “Dog Soldiers” completed one of the more remarkable runs in District 4 history, going from 0-10 the previous season to district champions. The roots continued growing stronger each year since and now a District 4 dynasty has bloomed. Jersey Shore captured its second straight District 4 Class AAAA championship last Friday, defeating Selinsgrove, 33-14. The Bulldogs won their third title in four years and their fourth in seventh, repeating as district champions for the first time.

Championships, though, are not the only thread bonding these outstanding Jersey Shore teams. Just as important is a belief that they can achieve greatness when so many others doubt them. Look back at each district championship season and one sees a Jersey Shore team silencing the doubters.

Obviously, no one outside the Jersey Shore community thought the Bulldogs could win districts in 2013, but they won four straight games down the stretch and avenged two regular-season defeats, going to Shikellamy and Selinsgrove in districts and giving the program its first championship since 1997. Three years later a young Jersey Shore team was written off following a 26-6 loss against Selinsgrove that left it at 3-3. The Bulldogs won six straight games, avenged that Selinsgrove loss and earned another championship.

When Jersey Shore opened the 2018 campaign 1-3, just reaching the playoffs seemed like it might be difficult, especially after Selinsgrove throttled it 31-10 in Week 2. Different year, same script. Jersey Shore surged down the stretch, won a league title and defeated Selinsgrove, 20-17 in an overtime, championship thriller.

That is how Jersey Shore is. The program is not just about outstanding players and excellent coaches. At its core, this is a program defined by fighters.

And this 2019 team is proudly carrying on that tradition. Jersey Shore, which faces District 1 champion Bishop Shanahan in Friday’s state tournament opener, looked like it might take a step back this season. All-state players like David Tomb and Hunter O’Connor graduated, as did several starters on both sides of the ball. The offensive line featured just one returning starter and no returning receiver caught more than 26 passes.

But here Jersey Shore is, a champion again. The Bulldogs have done what those past teams have done. They have kept grinding, kept improving and enter states riding a five-game winning streak. Together, they join those other champions in being the living embodiment of the program’s “tradition never graduates,” slogan.

“So many people told us we would not be good this year,” right guard Eddie Woodring said. “They said we would only win a couple games because we lost David Tomb and other great players and we just used that as fuel.”

“They love those guys we lost, but they heard some of the chatter and echoes of people saying we lost some great players, but we knew we had a good nucleus coming back,” Jersey Shore coach Tom Gravish said. “The goal this year was to do something that has never been done before and win the HAC-I in consecutive years for the first time and then win districts again for the first time and now we are trying to win the first state playoff game in school history.”

Bishop Shanahan represents the latest challenge and Jersey Shore probably prefers it if many pick the Eagles to win. The Bulldogs consistently are at their best when people tell them they cannot do something. These are fierce competitors who welcome all challenges. They respect everyone, but fear no one. Look at their schedule as evidence.

Jersey Shore could have given itself an easier path to earning the district’s top seed. Instead, it played non-conference games against two-time defending Class AA state champion Southern Columbia, District 4 Class AA finalist Mount Carmel, District 4 Class AAA finalist Montoursville, District 6 Class AAAA champion Bellefonte and District 6 Class AAA champion Bald Eagle Area. Nothing great is easily achieved and Jersey Shore certainly has paid the price to reap its playoff success.

This team also has attacked each challenge, each opponent with a selfless spirit. The Bulldogs have played well in all facets and have never cared about who is receiving the publicity. Winning is all that matters.

“All the coaches are pretty competitive people and our players are, too. We look to compete and our schedule is the perfect example,” Gravish said. “Playing those teams was a daunting task, but our kids are up for a challenge. We had a lot of these kids in middle school and in youth camps and we knew they were good football players and we thought we could mold them into something, but all the credit goes to them for the success we’ve had. They have embraced everything we’ve asked them to do and have embraced their roles. Nobody has complained about who has the football. It just matters to them that somebody in Black and Orange is scoring.”

The results stay the same and so does the mentality. That 2013 team made the big breakthrough and each following team has built on the tradition. Whatever happens Friday, do not expect that to change in the coming years.

Some super players will graduate next June and Jersey Shore will again face questions. Put the odds against it, Jersey Shore does not care.

Players past, present and future enjoy the motivation. That makes the championships even sweeter.

Players graduate at Jersey Shore. Tradition there? Maybe that never will.

Chris Masse may be reached by email at cmasse@sungazette.com. Follow him on Twitter at @docmasse.

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