The end of the 2010 season for the St. Michael the Archangel football team contained a hauntingly similar theme to the one it endured to close 2009.
In both instances the Warriors, on the cusp of achieving the school’s first state playoff victory, had to pick up the pieces after first-round losses to Haughton (64-54) and Franklinton (57-13), respectively.
The long bus rides home from opposite ends of the state on those two chilly November evenings prompted everyone involved with the program to reach a quick conclusion: to enjoy the taste of postseason success they would have to become better defensively.
“At the end of those seasons we’d been giving up a lot of points and a lot of yards,” St. Michael coach Eric Held said. “It left a bad taste in their mouths. We came out with little confidence again.”
The first place most observers would begin when looking at St. Michael’s 6-0 start - complete with the school’s first ranking at No. 10 in Class 4A - would be the Warriors’ high-powered offense.
St. Michael is scoring 39.3 points a game, nearly three more points a game than last year. Like last year, senior quarterback Dash Duncan pulls the trigger on the team’s spread attack.
However, the Warriors defense has more than upheld its end of the bargain - having allowed 16.5 points or 12 fewer than last year’s team - heading into Friday’s District 6-4A showdown with No. 4 Lutcher (5-1, 1-0) at the Louisiana Leadership Institute.
“The first coaching staff meeting we had we said that our No. 1 objective is to win games,” St. Michael defensive coordinator Paul Varnado said. “We said we’ll do whatever we need to do whether it’s a defensive game or an offensive game. Everyone’s going to play a part.”
The fact St. Michael returned six defensive starters, including a trio of senior linemen in Stephen Scardina, Logan Patty and Patrick O’Friel, provided a foundation to restore the unit’s confidence.
Scardina, the state’s two-time Division II heavyweight wrestling champion, is the team’s cornerstone after earning first team all-district honors last season, but Patty’s development, coupled with the Week 2 return of senior Matthew Hartman from a knee injury, have enabled St. Michael to transition to a four-man front and use a 4-2-5 alignment.
St. Michael’s first defensive statement came at halftime in their season-opening 43-22 victory over Walker. The Wildcats, led by the state’s leading rusher, Carlton Perkins, jumped out to a 22-7 halftime lead, but since that juncture - a span of 22 quarters - the Warriors’ starting defense has allowed only three touchdowns.
St. Michael fell behind 20-10 in the second quarter of last week’s district opener with Belaire, but with the defense holding the Bengals scoreless the remainder of the way, the Warriors rallied for a 30-20 triumph.
Junior linebacker Alex Ruch contributed 15 of his team-high 52 tackles a week ago. Junior strong safety Brandon Davenport has 45 tackles, followed by Patty and O’Friel with 37 stops apiece. Patty is the team leader with 4-1/2 sacks, followed by Scardina with four.
The pressure by St. Michael’s front four is a big reason it enjoys a plus-11 advantage in turnover margin.
Junior cornerback Peyton Drago’s five interceptions is already a single-season school record and fellow junior C.J. Okpalobi, also a starting running back, has three interceptions and has one of the team’s three defensive touchdowns (the others belonging to Davenport and Scardina) this season. Collin Hughes, another defensive back, has broken up 14 passes.
“We really work together to get a victory,” Varnado said. “We don’t have to score 40 points a game and run 90 plays to win a game. There can be times where we run the ball, milk the clock and keep the
defense on the sideline. I think we complement each other well.”