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BOTD No. 6: 2014 Bulldogs had a dominant defensive squad

Anyone who knows this reporter knows I love offense. The more points, the more yards, the happier I am. And while I always will remain that way, the 2014 Jersey Shore team made me love seeing dominant defense, too. They produced it nearly every week.

If one is drawing NFL equivalents, Jersey Shore basically was like the 2000 Ravens, 1985 Bears or the 1970s Steelers. The Orange and Black Crush gobbled up opponent after opponent and Jersey Shore having the decade’s best defense is this team’s legacy and identity.

Not that Jersey Shore was dull offensively. The Bulldogs featured a 1,000-yard quarterback and 1,000-yard running back. Put it all together and Jersey Shore rightfully earned its spot on this list after going 11-1, winning a league championship and coming within five points of repeating as District 4 Class AAA champions.

Ironically, anyone saying Jersey Shore would someday end up on a Top 10 teams of the decade list just two years earlier likely would have been greeted with laughter. The Bulldogs went 0-10 in 2012, capping a four-year run in which they won just three games. But the winds of change blew through when coach Tom Gravish arrived and that young 2012 team made rapid progress even if the record did not show it.

A year later, Jersey Shore was a champion. The Bulldogs changed the program’s culture and the foundation for the program’s winning tradition was laid in 2013. That team won four straight late-season games and captured the district title as the No. 4 seed in a four-team field. Those seniors leaders put the wheels in motion and the players returned not only were talented, but also now believed.

The power of that combination was seen throughout the 2014 campaign. Jersey Shore completed an undefeated regular season for the first time in 65 years, started 11-0 and outscored its opponents, 376-84.

“When I was in middle school I always told myself when I get to Jersey Shore High School and I play varsity, things are going to turn around,” all-state nose guard Bryce Charles said following a 47-0 Week 7 win at Milton. “It started happening last year (2013) and it’s been amazing.”

That was a good way to describe this team. The Bulldogs shutout four opponents, held 11 to 14 points or fewer, eight team seven or fewer and snapped a 28-game losing streak against Montoursville when they rallied for a 27-21 Week 4 overtime win. Jersey Shore also defeated Selinsgrove, 16-10, in a district final rematch. Those two games stand out not just because the victories came against outstanding opponents, but also because those were the only times Jersey Shore did not win by at least 22 points that season.

The offense was balanced with Logan English throwing for 1,405 yards and 20 touchdowns and Levi Lorson running for 1,845 yards and 11 touchdowns in his first year starting. Wide receiver Brody Smith caught eight touchdons and Dom Loffredo was one of the district’s premier tight ends.

Still, this team was defined by its nasty defense. The Bulldogs were a wrecking machine which allowed just seven points a game, a number which is even lower when taking away late-game touchdowns produced against backups. Think about this: Jersey Shore was so stifling that its starters produced as many touchdowns (7) as they allowed.

Jersey Shore forced 40 turnovers, intercepted 19 passes, collected 38 sacks and allowed just 75.6 yards per game on the ground. Charles, Loffredo, Zach Miller and Ethan Kutza and Cameron Boughter were a fearsome fivesome in the team’s 5-2 defense, mauling quarterbacks and stuffing the run. Loffredo and Charles earned all-state honors, with Loffredo’s 15 sacks an area-best in the 2000s. Miller added 10 1/2 sacks.

The linebackers and secondary were strong as well with Smith becoming a shutdown cornerback who intercepted eight passes and was named all-state. Derek Leese and Travis Bradley each intercepted five passes and Lorson and Chris Bashaw combined to make 113 tackles.

Orchestrating this defense was defensive coordinator Alex Jackson, the mad scientist of area defenses who helped Loyalsock win district championships in 2007 and 2009. Jackson pushed all the right buttons then and still today and, from a coaching standpoint, 2014 might have been his masterpiece.

“Coach Jackson is huge,” Loffredo said following the Milton win. “He’s good at emphasizing our roles and having us focusing on our role first. You have to be a perfectionist at what you’re assigned to do and focus on that. He’s a big motivator, too, when it comes to speeches and he can really get the guys going.”

Gravish could as well and he created a game-like atmosphere at practices. Because Jersey Shore featured multiple one-way players that first team defense often could go against the first team offense. They after each other like it was Friday night and come Friday night, they were as prepared as could be.

“We always say that you don’t let anyone score, even in practice,” Gravish said following the HAC-I championship-clinching win against Selinsgrove. It happened once or twice in practice, but for the most part it didn’t happen. It’s fun watching them. They all just play so hard.”

Selinsgrove denied Jersey Shore a happy ending to this remarkable season, scoring a fourth-quarter touchdown and edging it 6-2 in the district final. The Bulldogs again played stifling defense and in defeat, received a rousing ovation from their fans who had packed the stands all season and continue to do so today.

Jersey Shore made history last fall when it reached the state semifinals. That upward ascension began in 2013 and hit warp speed with what the 2014 team achieved.

“The town is part of the motivation for us because we don’t want to let them down,” Charles said. “They want to be there for us and we want to be there for them.”

What a relationship that has become.

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