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Jersey Shore’s Hayden Packer has been outstanding on field this season

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Jersey Shore’s Hayden Packer (right) helps tackle a Crestwood player during Friday’s PIAA Class AAAA quarterfinal game. The Bulldogs and Packer play in the state semifinals Friday.

As he started walking toward the locker room following an exciting 26-14 Class AAAA state quarterfinal win at Crestwood, Jersey linebacker Hayden Packer noticed some Crestwood parents talking and some volunteers taking down video equipment.

So for the first time all night, Packer did not go straight ahead. He reversed course and took the long way back inside. It was a little thing which revealed a lot.

“He wanted to let them have their moment,” Jersey Shore coach Tom Gravish said. “What a classy kid.”

Packer is a nice kid. But put him on the football field and watch the beast within explode. The sophomore linebacker/fullback has put together a super breakthrough season and he played his best game at the most opportune time against Crestwood. Packer made 16 tackles while running for 38 yards and a touchdown on seven carries as Jersey Shore earned a second straight state semifinal appearance.

Jersey Shore (9-0) travels to fellow unbeaten Lampeter-Strasburg on Friday to play for a spot in the state championship. A player who saw limited varsity action last year is a major reason why the Bulldogs are again one of the state’s top four teams.

“Packer is an animal,” cornerback Cayden Hess said. “We knew he was going to be an animal from the offseason work he did.”

With all-state linebacker Dawson Sechrist graduating, there was one starting position opening up at linebacker opposite Packer’s older brother Gabe. The 5-foot-10, 190-pounder did everything he could to not just earn that spot, but flourish once he did.

And that mission has been accomplished. Packer is second on the team in tackles (65), averaging 7.2 per game while adding seven tackles for loss and two sacks. He has helped fill a gaping void and played a vital role in Jersey Shore allowing just 4.9 points and 132.2 yards per game. Against Crestwood, he seemed to be everywhere, gobbling up running backs, knocking players backward and recovering a fumble which ended a third-quarter scoring threat.

“The work that he was putting in and seeing him the weight room and he how he was going crazy in there, we knew he was going to have a good year,” Hess said. “It shows. He’s stuffing people that are seniors.”

Packer and Packer sounds like a good law firm, but has been an even better linebacking duo. Gabe is the team’s leading tackler, providing both production and leadership. Their chemistry is obvious and both have been strong against both the run and the pass.

A year ago, Gabe was the first-time starter and Sechrist helped him make a smooth transition. Now it is Gabe being the mentor and his knowledge has provided Hayden quite an asset. It also is creating some lasting memories.

“It’s amazing. I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Hayden said. “He’s the defensive hammer and he lays the wood.”

But Jersey Shore’s wood cutter suffered an injury five plays into the game against Crestwood and did not return. It was a precarious situation and it left Hayden as the unit’s defensive quarterback. Instead of breaking, Hayden grew stronger and formed an outstanding sophomore duo with Jared Palski as the Bulldogs made three stops inside the 10-yard line and slowed a potent offense.

Gabe continued helping his brother prosper, too, even if it was in a different role. Obviously, Hayden wanted his brother on the field beside him, but he turned a negative into a positive and learned a lot about himself through the process.

“I went up to Gabe and talked to him on the sideline and he coached me up a little bit on things I was doing wrong. He helped me play better on the field,” Hayden said. “I feel like it will make me so much more prepared for next year knowing that Gabe won’t be there. I feel so much more confident for next year.”

Jersey Shore feels confident having Packer back at both linebacker and fullback next season. He primarily has been a blocker and short-yardage back this season, but Packer showed some nice burst on his carries and his running complemented Cam Allison (77 yards) against Crestwood. Packer capped Jersey Shore’s 65-yard opening drive with a 2-yard touchdown run and also ignited the 85-yard touchdown march following his fumble recovery with a seven-yard run on the first play.

Packer has run for six touchdowns his season and is a hard-nosed runner who brings a defensive mentality to offense. He likely will play a similar role in 2021 and combine with players like Brady Jordan, Gabe Andrus and Nick Williams to give Jersey Shore another potentially loaded backfield.

“He was running well and getting us those 5-7 yard gainers,” Gravish said. “We thought we could use him on some quick hitters and he ran well and he ran hard.”

That is the only way Packer knows how to play. While he is a good fullback, defense has become his calling card. He has made big strides throughout the season and is peaking at the perfect time.

It was not just the tackles against Crestwood, but when Packer made them which stood out. He consistently was involved in some of the game’s key moments and frequently wrapped players up, not letting them gain extra yards.

Packer’s best play came when Crestwood had a third-and-goal from the 2-yard line in the third quarter. He exploded through the line, stood up quarterback Noah Schultz and dropped him for a 2-yard loss. A play later, Schultz threw an incompletion and Jersey Shore turned it away for a second straight time inside the 5 after Packer’s fumble recovery ended the previous series. He also was one of several Bulldogs who met Jimmy Hawley in the backfield and dropped him for a four-yard loss on first-and-goal from the 1 a play before Kooper Peacock made a game-clinching interception.

The thing is, Packer is good now but he is only scratching the surface. He still has two more years to learn and get stronger. He may just be getting started.

Packer is kind off the field, but he is Jersey Shore’s animal on it. Having him back could help this program remain one of the state’s best these next two years.

“He’s a heck of an athlete. He’s a good football player and a good wrestler,” defensive end Dalton Dugan said. “Anything he does, he’s good at it and he’s really going to be good the next two years playing here.”

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