Beauty of sports is it can’t be scripted
One of the things I love most about this job is the unknown. One can predict movies and soap operas, but what makes sports so great is they cannot be scripted.
I have been covering high school sports since 1999 and just when I think I’ve seen nearly everything, I am privileged enough to have my breath taken away again.
That is exactly what Jersey Shore and Lampeter-Strasburg did Friday. I am writing this column 15 hours after the game ended Friday night and am still buzzing. Jersey Shore captured its first Eastern Region championship and is Hershey-bound for the 4A state final against Thomas Jefferson on Saturday after winning a riveting 39-35 thriller with enough twists and turns to make Stephen King envious.
Even King might have thrown out a script he read eight years ago which had Jersey Shore playing for the 2020 state championship. It seemed so far-fetched. This was a program that endured six seasons of one or no wins from 2001-12. It won three games from 2009-12 and had not enjoyed a winning season since 1997.
The 2013 team wrote the first chapter in this unlikely journey of going from 0-10 to district champions. The climb has continued every year since with Jersey Shore winning five district titles, four league crowns and playing in consecutive state semifinals. Friday, dream became reality as Jersey Shore repeatedly picked itself off the canvas and rallied for the biggest win in program history.
Rising from the ashes and becoming a state power has been like a book which one cannot put down. This book is not yet finished either, but Jersey Shore wrote one of its most exciting chapters Friday.
Coach Tom Gravish said it was high school football at its best in this classic state semifinal and that perfectly sums it up. This was two heavyweight teams exchanging haymakers all night with neither one backing down. No matter how many hits one delivered, the other kept moving forward. This contest featured three second-half lead changes, 999 yards, 38 first downs and a great chess match between two outstanding coaching staffs. Athletes all over the field kept making highlight-reel plays, delivering big hits and making terrific blocks.
Jersey Shore twice trailed by seven, including 28-21 at halftime. Several times it appeared Lampeter-Strasburg was poised to deliver a knockout blow and every time Jersey Shore fought off the ropes and stunned the undefeated District 3 champions. Branden Wheary threw for 252 yards and three touchdowns. Cam Allison ran for 130 yards and two scores, Cayden Hess caught a career-high 13 passes for 162 yards, Owen Anderson added six catches for 119 yards … and that’s just on offense.
Dalton Dugan returned a third-quarter interception for a go-ahead touchdown, Karter Peacock recorded two key sacks in his first game since Week 2, Quincey Myers knocked down two passes and Allison made a brilliant touchdown-saving fourth-quarter pass breakup.
It took all 11 players functioning as one on both sides to overcome a phenomenal team which ran roughshod through District 3, and that is what these resilient Bulldogs produced.
“I never lost confidence in our team. I knew we would come out and win,” Allison said. “It was just a matter of when we did it and how we did it.”
Jersey Shore did it by making some key defensive stands and then going 62 yards on six plays for the go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Wheary found Hess for a 5-yard touchdown and Jersey Shore went up, 39-35. L-S quarterback Sean McTaggart made an Eli Manning Super Bowl XLII-like prayer of a throw to extend the ensuing drive. An apparent Jersey Shore fumble recovery was negated when referees said the receiver was down and the Pioneers were 15 yards from regaining the lead with a little more than four minutes remaining.
Either of those plays could have demoralized Jersey Shore. So, too, could have many made before that. But this is Jersey Shore. These Bulldogs do not flinch. They care only about making the next play and time after time that is what they did. A play after Allison broke up what would have been the go-ahead touchdown, McTaggart was swarmed by a pack of hungry Bulldogs and had to hurry a throw which Hess intercepted in the back of the end zone.
The only thing this chapter needed was an ending and the offensive line provided it, taking over up front and paving the way for Allison and Hayden Packer to churn out the yards and run the clock. Allison clinched the victory with a 9-yard first-down run and Hershey’s Kisses soon started flying as fiction became reality.
“It’s what we do. We always say next play, keep your head up,” Wheary said. “This team has so much resilience and persistence. It’s incredible.”
So was this game. I try not to be a prisoner of the moment so I cannot say if this is the best high school football game I’ve ever covered. Montoursville-Loyalsock, Montoursville-Southern Columbia and Pottsville-Jersey Shore all have captivated me, too. But I can say this Eastern Final now takes its place among that pantheon of all-time games.
The book is still being written and the next chapter comes Saturday. I will analyze this game, look at all the matchups and try figuring out what will happen in the coming days. The great thing is I have no idea what actually will transpire.
But I know I cannot wait to see it.
Masse may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @docmasse.