High School Sports

Tenacious 'D'

Great Falls defensive players from left, Daon Rice, A.J. Squirewell and Jerome Culp.
Great Falls defensive players from left, Daon Rice, A.J. Squirewell and Jerome Culp.

GREAT FALLS -- If a football coach ever says he doesn't pay attention to statistics, records or polls, don't believe it because it's something they say.

Brett Blackmon, Great Falls' defensive coordinator, will flat-out admit he looks at numbers.

Blackmon called a couple of Mondays ago and asked if the Red Devils were still at the top of The Herald's team defense leaderboard. The list was running the next morning, but Blackmon wanted to know ahead of time.

Yes, he was told, Great Falls was still at the top. But why bother calling? It's a spot the Red Devils have owned for years.

Defense is the Red Devils' trademark. If you stop the other team, you win.

It's simple as that.

"We take a lot of pride in defense down here in Great Falls,'' Blackmon said. "One of our team goals going into the year was to be the No. 1 defense in The Herald area. We wanted to go 10-for-10 in the regular season, but we dropped down to second one week.

"In my eight years, we've always finished in the top five. We've had to come from behind in some years, but this is the first time we've been this consistent an entire season.''

The Red Devils hope to stay there this week. They have a second-round Class A Division II playoff game hosting McBee, which the Red Devils beat 25-0 in the regular season.

Great Falls (9-2) has allowed only 1,572 yards, an average of 143 per game, and 105 points, which averages out to 9.5. Only 90 of those were scored on Blackmon's defense.

The total yards given up are 503 less than second-place Fort Mill. The points are 17 less than Chester, which has allowed 122.

How about those numbers, coach, any coach?

Blackmon has come up with many ways to motivate his defensive unit. Each Tuesday, he posts the newspaper on the bulletin board next to the locker room. He came up with a keyword this season -- 'Shutout' -- and he still hands out a boxing glove Monday to the player making the big hit in the previous Friday's game, and the player gets to hang it on his locker until it's awarded again.

"As soon as we get to school on Tuesdays, we rush down to the locker room and look at the paper,'' said Jerome Culp, a 6-foot-3, 280-pound junior defensive tackle. "We check it to see how we did and to see how close to us the other teams are getting.

"It gets us fired up, a good thing for us to see early in the week. And coach Blackmon makes sure all of us see it. He wants us to stay on top of the other teams.''

Great Falls runs a 4-3 defense. The front line is huge, with Culp and 6-2, 290-pound junior Daon Rice at the tackles. Nate Nelson (6-3, 195) and Josh Lynn (6-4, 225) are the ends.

Blackmon said once you get past the land of the giants, you have to beat the unit's speedsters that includes defensive back Jeremy Simpson, chosen to play in this year's North-South All-Star Game.

Another of the leaders is junior linebacker A.J. Squirewell, who lines up beside his brother, freshman Stevo Squirewell, and Josh Lynn's brother, sophomore Isaiah Lynn.

"What makes our defense go is communication with each other on the field,'' A.J. Squirewell said. "It's good because we've been playing together since mite ball.

"Playing defense on this team is fun. Coach Blackmon and our linebacker coach, Tori Barber, make it that way, but they let us know when it's time to focus on football.''

"And another of our assistants, coach (Kenny) Snipes, gets us really fired up before games,'' Culp said. "He jumps up and down, screams that if we want to stay first on the leaderboard that we have to go out and hold 'em under 100 yards.''

Head coach Kenny Schofield said the beauty of the defense is all 11 players are around the ball, that if an opponent tries to run to the edges, his players will pursue the ball.

The prettiest thing about it in Blackmon's eyes is its consistency. In the past he's had players lead the team with 100 or more tackles. This season, seven players have 40 or more tackles, led by 79 from A.J. Squirewell and 71 by Stevo Squirewell.

Blackmon said he finally feels like he has a defense that can keep pace with the Red Devils' offense. It's a valid point. Schofield said the defense has done a good job of giving the offense good field position all season.

All but Simpson and Culp will be back next season.

Rice has seen his production go up this season to 40 tackles. There is, he added, a good reason for the improvement.

"There seems to be a better atmosphere this year,'' he said. "A lot of that has to do with us and not the coaches. We listen more, try to learn and pick up all the different schemes.

"We always try to play our best, never taking a down off. We are more serious. We make it a point for all 11 people to be around the ball on every play.''

Class AAAA Division I

Stratford at Northwestern, 7:30 p.m.

Rock Hill at Summerville, 7:30 p.m.

Class AAAA Division II

South Pointe at Aiken, 7:30 p.m.

Laurens at Clover, 8 p.m.

Class AAA

Fairfield Central at Chester, 8 p.m.

Class A Division II

McBee at Great Falls, 7:30 p.m.