After two seasons of mediocre defense, a failed attempt at fiddling with some new offensive ideas and a relatively undistinguished 13-9 overall record, veteran St. Francis de Sales football coach Dick Cromwell had seen enough.
Instead of getting with the flow, Cromwell decided this year's Knights would get back to what they know - defense.
The Knights (3-1, 1-0 City League), ranked 12th in the Ohio Division II poll, won't be filling any offensive highlight reels this season, unless you fancy a repetitive assortment of runs.
No, St. Francis football is relying on two objectives - stopping the opposition cold, and producing just enough points to win.
Except for one glitch, an 18-13 loss at Massillon Jackson in the game's final 24 seconds, the Knights have been hitting their mark. The next test comes tonight at defending City League champion Rogers (3-1, 1-0).
“The last couple years we kind of got away from emphasizing defense in this new age of spread offenses and throwing the ball,” Cromwell said. “We got into that, and got away from what we used to do. This year we have made a conscious effort to go back to what we used to do - emphasize defense and hope to find enough offense to win games.
“We've been playing better than we have the past couple years, and part of that is personnel and part of it is our emphasis. If kids need a rest now, we rest them on offense. If it's fourth-and-3, we punt instead of going for it. We're more conservative and we try to let our defense dominate the game.”
The return to a more simple approach was not made entirely because of Cromwell's adherence to fundamentals, or any nostalgic quest for the values of “old-time football.” In fact, part of the reason the Knights got back to the basics was necessity.
They graduated a quarterback, a fullback and the CL's top rusher (B.J. Gall, 1,416 yards regular season) from last year, and their inexperienced replacements would need time to learn.
Senior Tom Donovan edged out two juniors and a sophomore for the quarterback spot, and is slowly progressing into a comfort zone.
Senior Rodney Gamby, a transfer from Bedford High School, has won the top running-back spot and become the focal point of the offense.
But the backbone of this Knight squad has been the defense, led by seniors Adam Links, Jamye Whaley, and Alex Glonek and junior Steve Fender, four players who are enjoying an opportunity in the spotlight rarely afforded to defensive personnel.
“It's fun playing knowing everyone is watching you and expecting you to make a big play,” said Glonek, a 5-11, 176-pound defensive end who has 30 tackles and three fumble recoveries. “We've got some big playmakers on offense too, but the defense is expected to make plays.”
Instead of buying into the present-day philosophy of “You can't win if you don't score ... a lot,” St. Francis prefers another outlook: “You can't lose if your opponent doesn't score ... at all.”
“We have an extra incentive to keep the score close,” said Fender, a 6-3, 216-pound end who has 33 tackles and one fumble recovery. “It's pretty cool that people look forward to watching us play defense. We love the big hits and our fans have been getting into it.”
Outscoring foes by a modest average of 25-12 per game, the defense realizes its primary objective.
“There's not any real pressure on us, but we do have to get it done (on defense),” said Links, a 6-1, 220-pound linebacker who has 25 tackles and returned one interception for a touchdown. “The offense is getting better, but, for now, the defense has to play the most important role.”
Through four games - a Sept. 14 game scheduled at Cincinnati Moeller was cancelled - the Knight defense has surrendered just 290 total rushing yards on 121 attempts (2.4 average), and 337 passing yards (27 completions, 69 attempts). This adds up to a per-game total defensive average of 157 yards (3.2 yards per play).
“Defense is tremendous no matter how you look at any game,” said Whaley, a 5-11, 168-pound cornerback who has 16 tackles and an interception. “Offense can win games, but defense wins championships. Our defense has been awesome this year. At times we've dropped our guard and gotten lazy. But for the most part I think we've lived up to the challenge.”
The rest of the starting defense comprises seniors Mike Degnan (6-0, 245, tackle), Shane Yagnam (6-2, 202, tackle) and Gamby (5-10, 186, strong safety), and juniors John Lonchyna (6-1, 222, linebacker), Ryan Lamy (6-0, 223, middle guard), Brandon Schrader (5-9, 175, strong corner) and Joel Malhoit (6-0, 157, free safety). Juniors Dustin Szenderski and Jordan Lonchyna are the top situational subs.
Meanwhile, the Knights offense, led by Gamby (429 yards, 6.5-yard average), is gaining 228 yards a game on the ground and 43 a game through the air (12 for 32 total). Not overly impressive numbers, but enough to win.