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Inside the Dog House

It is a team sport playoff fact of life — unless a team wins its final game, its season concludes with a loss. Such was the ultimate fate of the 2021 Jersey Shore Bulldogs; however, the reality of its 41-16 defeat at the hands of state powerhouse Aliquippa was more about the championship caliber of the dawgs in its pound than it was about a single loss.

In sports circles lately, there have been a lot of teams and players talking about adhering to ‘the process’ when referencing their desires to turn around the fortunes of unsuccessful programs. Any sort of ‘process’ seemed non-existent in Jersey Shore as the football team went 20-107 from 2000 until Tom Gravish arrived in 2013. Since then, the motivational Gravish has had the Bulldogs growling — piling up victories and gaining statewide attention.

A Bald-Eagle Area High School graduate, Gravish matriculated to West Virginia University on a baseball scholarship. After graduation, he got his first coaching experience at BEA, followed by head coaching opportunities at East Juniata, Bellefonte, Williamsport, and the last ten years at Jersey Shore.

Gravish has developed a program that began with very little fanfare into a state power, making three state Final Four appearances, winning six district championships, five league titles, and registering three undefeated regular seasons.

His formula for success is deep-rooted, but his explanation is very simplistic.

“Coaches coach, players play, administrators administrate, and we all put our respective time and efforts into it,” Gravish stated. “We have a very good booster club, and the support from the Jersey Shore community has been tremendous.”

So is his motivational leadership that has maintained his mantra of “tradition never graduates.” He has introduced his team to a 60-foot strand of rope (to instill all are pulling in the same direction), taken the opportunities to attend various pre-season football training camps, including several in Ohio, and instilled team-bonding taking his squads on college football trips to Penn State, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Maryland, Temple, and Army.

As the cold of the Central Cambria evening and the sting of defeat settled in on the Bulldogs after the Aliquippa game, Gravish knew his kids were hurting because they had been so dedicated to the season that didn’t end the way they had hoped.

“As we gathered on the field, I told the players what a great season we have had and how proud of them we were. What they accomplished is something to really be proud of; four straight Heartland Conference and District IV championships and three straight trips to the PIAA Final Four, including last year’s appearance in the state championship game. We thanked all of them for the hard work, dedication, and sacrifices they collectively made that resulted in the team’s success.”

This was Jersey Shore’s youngest team since Gravish became its coach. They had lost the majority of their starters, but the coach was undeterred.

“We have this motto ‘tradition never graduates.’ Last year we lost 18 graduating seniors. This year we are a young team with only six seniors. We challenged the rest of our team that the torch had now been passed to them, and they accepted that challenge. Before the season started, we heard the chatter. We saw the twitter. We heard the breezes up and down the valley about how we wouldn’t have a winning season. These kids proved that kind of talk wrong, winning 14 games — the most in school history. Everyone involved in our program needs to be commended.

“The bus ride home was pretty quiet. They had played their hearts out. We shared some private conversations with them. Before they got on the bus, we were able to feed them. On that long bus ride home, most of the kids were sleeping. We didn’t get home until 12:30 a.m., but there was still a crowd of people at the school to greet us.”

That kind of community response has also grown to be a tradition in Jersey Shore.

“The community’s response to the team has always been fantastic,” Gravish added. “In 2013, when we won a district championship that we weren’t expected to win, the community was pretty excited. When we got home, the fire trucks were waiting for us; the police department gave us an escort through town. People waited outside to greet us; little kids had lined up in their pajamas to wave to the team. Our fans celebrate with us right on the field after the game, and at away playoff games, our fans outnumbered our opponents. It all has been pretty special.”

With its unique name and distant location from the sandy beaches of the Atlantic Ocean, Jersey Shore has heard its butt of jokes. However, none of those are emanating from the high school football teams facing them along the line of scrimmage. That once unheard-of process has now been replaced by huge respect.

Tom Gravish has left his mark.

“We have a lot of fun at practices. Our assistance coaches (Chris Bilbay, Eric Hess, Alex Jackson, Robert Lundy, and Ken Williamson) are the best in the world. We have a great trainer in Jackie George and a great athletic director, Serena Henry. We have the best fans in the land, and we are very grateful. We have a special town, a special community, and it means a lot to our players. We’re already looking forward to the 2022 season.”