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Jersey Shore’s Cayden Hess became area’s all-time receptions leader

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Jersey Shore’s Cayden Hess (24) jumps to catch a pass as Shikellamy’s Drew Balestrini covers him during Friday’s game at Thompson Street Stadium.

No player in area history has ever caught more passes than Cayden Hess.

The Jersey Shore wide receiver is only a junior, adding more luster to the achievement. Hess reached that milestone after catching 13 passes for 162 yards and two touchdowns while helping Jersey Shore capture the Eastern Region championship last Friday in a 39-35 Class AAAA state semifinal win at Lampeter-Strasburg. That performance helped Jersey Shore (10-0) become the first area team since South Williamsport in 1997 to reach the final.

Upon learning he had broken the record, Hess expressed one defining emotion-shock. Hess had no idea he was anywhere near the record. He did not care either.

A 2019 all-state selection, Hess never has been concerned about producing gaudy numbers. They are a means to producing wins and that is what matters.

Now Hess and Jersey Shore are going after the biggest win yet, facing Thomas Jefferson for the state title Saturday in Hershey. The record is nice, but the wins mean so much more.

“I didn’t even know that. I’m just focused on the games,” Hess said. “I never even thought about it, but to win and get that, too, is awesome.”

Hess has caught 139 career passes for 1,786 yards and 20 touchdowns. He moved past four receivers on the all-time list Friday, breaking Warrior Run Zach Shaffer’s 18-year record of 134 catches. Remarkably, Hess has caught 138 of those passes over the last two seasons, helping Jersey Shore go 21-4, win two district championships and reach a state final.

The 6-foot, 170-pounder possesses Jerry Rice-like hands as well as speed and power. Hess’s success, though, has been built upon relentless work. Following a breakout sophomore season which included 75 catches, 926 yards and 11 touchdowns, Hess never relaxed.

When COVID-19 hit in March, Hess kept grinding. When the season finally started, he was poised to build on last year’s success and has taken another step forward. Along the way Hess has caught an area-high 63 passes for 848 yards and nine touchdowns.

“He’s an all-state receiver and he just brings his best every week,” two-way starter Cam Allison said. “He’s 110 percent all the time.”

He also plays his best football at the best times. Hess has been a force in consecutive state tournaments, catching 43 passes for 502 yards and six touchdowns in five games. He has gone over 100 yards and caught multiple touchdowns three times, repeatedly making crucial catches.

That was the case again last Friday. Jersey Shore needed to be operating at peak efficiency in a game featuring 999 yards and four lead changes. Hess was a big reason it did, going over 100 yards by halftime before catching the game-winning touchdown with 9 minutes, 14 seconds remaining. He caught short passes, long passes, broke tackles, threw super blocks and showed all the traits that have made him one of the state’s top receivers.

“It’s awesome seeing him out there. He’s able to make incredible plays and I just have to give him the opportunity to do so,” quarterback Branden Wheary said after throwing for 252 yards and three touchdowns. “On the flip side, they put so much focus on Cayden and that opens up plays for Owen (Anderson) and Dalton (Dugan) and everyone else.”

Anderson (7 catches, 135 yards) also scored and Dugan added a highlight-reel 35-yard catch. Those two have combined for 56 catches, 917 yards and 13 touchdowns, proving Wheary’s point. Hess is as comfortable setting up others as he is making a big catch. Watch him block and that becomes obvious.

L-S was focused on containing Hess last Friday, it just could not. That included on the final touchdown. The Pioneers were ready for the roll out that Jersey Shore ran, but Hess improvised.

He started right then cut back the other way and Wheary found him. Going into Saturday, that is the biggest catch in program history.

“They knew what we as going on. I knew when I made my break that he was flying out there and so was the linebacker so I just shifted in,” Hess said. “Branden saw me perfectly, I put my arms out and he hit me right in the chest. It was perfect.”

Hess made another big catch on the ensuing L-S series. The Pioneers were 15 yards from regaining the lead, but Hess’s fourth-down interception in the end zone snuffed out that threat. He added a big 14-yard catch on Jersey Shore’s next drive, helping the Bulldogs run out the clock.

Hess is not just an excellent wide receiver, but a good football player, period. Hess has shined in his first season starting at cornerback, intercepting six passes and returning one for a touchdown.

“He’s just an amazing all-around athlete,” Allison said. “He can play anywhere on the field.”

“Cayden Hess has definitely made our defense impregnable,” nose tackle Lee Springman said. “He is not only an outstanding wide receiver, but he is a talented cornerback and a leader in a tight group of defensive backs that make our defense special.”

As reliable as he has been at cornerback, most still think of Hess as a receiver. One can hardly blame them.

Hess often makes difficult catches in traffic look routine. A nationwide audience saw that eight weeks ago when NFL Hall of Famer Randy Moss featured Hess’s brilliant touchdown catch against Central Mountain on his “You got Mossed” segment.

Pottsville and L-S have seen it quite often as well. A year ago when Jersey Shore won an epic 42-35 triple overtime quarterfinal, Hess caught nine passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns. Both touchdowns came in overtime, both featured defenders draped on him and both came on third-and-long situations.

Against L-S, Hess ignited the game’s first touchdown drive with a 33-yard catch and never slowed down. All that work produced another fabulous performance.

“He’s a monster. He’s an absolute monster,” defensive tackle Karter Peacock said. “He comes up with a lot of catches not many kids come up with.”

Earning that catch record means something to Hess, but not nearly as much as the team. And now both he and his teammates have a memory, a season which will live forever.

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