EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a series looking back at the Top 10 high school football teams, coaches, games and players from the last decade.
Its mascot is a bulldog, but Jersey Shore adopted a second one as it practiced throughout the 2013 preseason. Defensive coordinator Alex Jackson created the slogan “Dog Soldier Football.” Players quickly gravitated toward it and started wearing dog chains bearing those words.
Dog Soliders were a society of Cheyenne Native Americans known for their tenacity, fighting spirit and ability to stick together no matter the situation.
It was the perfect name for this program-changing team.
Jersey Shore went from rags to riches that year, dramatically altering the program’s trajectory and setting the stage for all the greatness which has followed that breakthrough season.
The Bulldogs entered 2013 riding a 13-game losing streak, but they left it as District 4 champions. Fittingly, Jersey Shore had to rely on all the Dog Soldier qualities to win the program’s first district title since 1997, defeating Selinsgrove, 20-16, in this Week 12 championship classic.
“We have a lot of young men with character,” Jersey Shore coach Tom Gravish said. “They are some of the finest young men I’ve ever been associated with and I’m really proud to be associated with the Jersey Shore football team.”
“We have a Wall of Fame in our school and we’ll be up there for all the years ahead and we’ll always remember this,” defensive end Zach Miller said after returning an interception for a second-quarter touchdown and recording 1 1/2 sacks. “It’s just an overwhelming feeling to be on this long journey and be a part of this.”
Jersey Shore traveled quite a journey on the road to this district final. The Bulldogs went 0-10 in Gravish’s 2012 debut season and were 3-37 over the previous four years, not recording a winning season in the 2000s. Still, that 2012 team was young and there were bright spots that season. A dedicated group of incoming seniors quickly went to work almost as soon as the 2012 season ended, determined to leave their mark.
Jersey Shore snapped its 13-game winning streak when it beat Shamokin, 33-14, and added a comeback 21-14 win against Bloomsburg in Week 4. But it then lost four straight games, including in Weeks 7 and 8 to Shikellamy and Selinsgrove. Jersey Shore was a few plays from victory nearly every week and changed their season’s course when they went to current District 4 Class AAA top seed Milton. Minutes from losing again, Jersey Shore put together a season-defining, game-winning touchdown drive and rallied for a thrilling 42-39 victory. The Bulldogs closed the regular season with an emphatic 36-20 victory against rival Central Mountain before making a statement in the district semifinals.
The fourth team in a four-team field, Jersey Shore showed how far it had come in a few weeks, erasing a 14-point halftime deficit and beating top-seeded Shikellamy, 24-14. Up next was defending champion Selinsgrove, a team which had lost just once to Jersey Shore in the 2000s.
Selinsgrove had won at Jersey Shore, 14-6, four weeks earlier but that felt like it was eons ago with the rapid development the Bulldogs had been showing. Proving that, senior Jordan Tawney ran for a 64-yard first-quarter touchdown and Miller added his pick-six as Jersey Shore went up, 14-3, in the second quarter.
An Isaiah Rapp to Mason Pope eight-yard touchdown pulled Selinsgrove within five at halftime and it took a 16-14 lead late in the third quarter on Angelo Martin’s four-yard touchdown run. This was a comeback season so it only made sense that Jersey Shore would have to come back and win this championship.
The defense led the way, forcing five turnovers and collecting three sacks. Miller, Brody Smith and Boone Costa intercepted passes while Miller, Ethan Kutza, Bryce Charles, Dominic Loffredo, Colton Winchester and Utoah Agae-Naipo played a critical role in holding Selinsgrove to 81 yards on 45 carries.
The defense kept Jersey Shore in the game and the offense won it late. Agae-Naipo, the program’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2000, broke off a 38-yard run and Jersey Shore had a first-and-goal at the Seals 6. The next two plays, however, lost seven yards. At this point, Jersey Shore had thrown for one yard all night, but with the season on the line, Logan English and Troy Rowan connected on one of the most important touchdowns in program history. Rowan made an outstanding play on the 1-on-1 coverage, English put the ball where it needed to be and Rowan rolled into the end zone as Jersey Shore went up, 20-16.
Four minutes remaining what once seemed impossible became reality as the defense stoned Selinsgrove one last time. Jersey Shore was a district champion. It was a victory not just for Jersey Shore, but underdogs everywhere.
“Coming a year after we didn’t win at all and when we had three wins in four years, it shows other athletes that it doesn’t matter how far down you are or what your record is,” Agae-Naipo said. “As long as you stick together and play hard and believe, anything can be accomplished.”
These Dog Soldiers proved it that night in Selinsgrove and throughout the 2013 season. Three more district championships and three league titles have followed since then and Jersey Shore played in the Class AAAA state semifinals last fall. And that championship win at Selinsgrove started it all.
“It’s unreal. Coming so far from where we were at before and now achieving the goals we have is absolutely unbelievable,” Rowan said. “It’s right out of a book.”
Turns out this was just Chapter 1.