By Brian Holtzapple
For The Daily Item
SUNBURY — A team with nothing to lose and everything to gain is a dangerous team to face come playoff time.
The Shikellamy Braves found that out the hard way when they played a hot Jersey Shore team in Friday’s District 4 Class AAA semifinal matchup.
Down by a pair of touchdowns at the half, No. 4-seeded Jersey Shore responded with 24 unanswered points to come back and take a stunning 24-14 victory at Shikellamy Stadium.
The win by Jersey Shore (5-6) is the Bulldogs’ first in the District 4 playoffs since 2008 (a 54-25 win over East Juniata).
Now, Jersey Shore plays No. 2-seeded Selinsgrove next Friday for the team’ first district title since 1997.
“We have a really young football team with only seven seniors, and a couple of them have been hurt. We said, ‘Hey, just keep playing.’ We have a lot of faith in our players and they get better each and every week,” said Jersey Shore coach Tom Gravish, whose team has now won its third game in a row.
“We understand we’ll be facing a tough team next week and it won’t be easy. But we have nothing to lose. We’re going for broke and we’re going to send everything we have (in the game) and have some fun.
“Nobody expected us to be (in the finals). We’re just trying to build a football team like what Selinsgrove has put together. They are a great program and we’re just trying to be like them,” Gravish added.
Dwayne Pepper scored on touchdown runs of 66 and 1 yard in the first and second quarters, respectively, to give No. 1-seeded Shikellamy (5-6) a 14-0 lead at the half
The Braves luck began to turn sour early in the third quarter when a shanked punt by Garrett Kemberling was recovered by the Bulldogs at the hosts’ own 37.
Jersey Shore got on the board six plays later with a seven-yard scoring run by Bryce Charles. The conversion run by quarterback Logan English was also successful and the Bulldogs only trailed by six with almost eight minutes remaining n the third.
“We said if we can get the running game going with our pro I set and get some downhill running a little bit, then we would win the football game,” Gravish said. “I think the kids believed in it. We had a physical drive and we got a two-point conversion, and I just felt that the momentum really shifted.”
Shikellamy’s punting troubles continued in its next series with a bad snap that gave Jersey Shore excellent field position once again, but it was for naught when Braves linebacker Joe Snyder recovered a fumble by Bryce Charles at the 1.
However, in Shikellamy’s attempt to distance itself from the end zone Jean Turber was tackled for a safety by lineman Colton Winchester and Jersey Shore inched to within four points at 14-10.
“We had trouble with the punt and made two big turnovers in the special teams against a good team, and Jersey Shore just grabbed the momentum and didn’t look back,” said Shikellamy coach Todd Tilford.
“That’s just a credit to how hard Jersey Shore played and they just took over. All the credit to Jersey Shore for taking advantage of our miscues.”
The Bulldogs then took their first lead of the game just 30 seconds into the fourth quarter on a one-yard run by Utoa Agae-Naipo.
Three minutes later, the Bulldogs pushed their lead to 10 points on a 21-yard touchdown run by Jordan Tawney, who began the year as the team’s starting quarterback but now plays primarily out of the Wildcat position.
The ensuing desperation attempts to tie the game by Shikellamy were halted when backup quarterback Christian Schlegel was intercepted twice in back-to-back possessions — first by Tawney and then by Boone Costa.
Adding insult to injury for the Braves in the second half was a groin injury suffered by Pepper early in the fourth quarter. Pepper ran for 171 yards on 22 carries, with all but nine yards coming in the first half.
“We had some open receivers and we just didn’t connect when Jersey Shore was playing with nine guys on the line of scrimmage and challenging us to make the plays (through the air),” said Tilford.
“Pepper pulled his groin, but Jersey Shore did what it had to do to win. All the credit to them. They are a really hot team right now and their kids are playing hard.”