Connor Kirsch helps clog middle for Notre Dame _lowres

Advocate photo by Brad Kemp Notre Dame defensive linemen Connor Kirsch does a drill during Monday's practice.

There’s never been a conscious effort on the part of Notre Dame defensive tackle Connor Kirsch to try to match or exceed the production of defensive end Nate Link.

That’s not say there has never been any good-natured banter exchanged after a game in which the two pillars of the Pioneers interior have tried pushing the other to reach new heights.

In the case of Kirsch, a two-year starter, that’s been exactly the case where the 6-foot, 225-pounder has enjoyed a career-best season for a dominating Notre Dame defense that’s helped the No. 4 Pios (9-2) advance to a Division II select state semifinal Friday at No. 1 University High (11-0).

“Nate’s one of my best friends, and it’s hard to keep up with him,” Kirsch said. “There is friendly competition, and it’s to motivate each other. He leads by example and by following him you take the lead also and everybody follows you. You do what you have to do, and it turns out.”

Longtime Notre Dame coach Lewis Cook Jr. said it’s become almost commonplace for the middle linebacker to take top billing when it comes to leading the team in tackles.

However, there’s nothing ordinary about Link — a returning Class 3A All-Stater — or the play of Notre Dame’s defensive front that features Kirsch, along with junior defensive end Trey Vautrot and senior defensive tackle Logan Lagrange.

The Pios are allowing 159 total yards per outing, including just 61 rushing per game and 2.1 per carry.

“With those two guys up front, they (opposing runners) don’t get to the linebackers as much as they used to,” Cook said. “Connor and Nate compliment each other. Teams have to pick what they want to do. If they go to Nate’s side, he slows the ball up, and Connor comes from the inside and finishes it off and sometimes vice versa.”

Kirsch, the nephew of former NFL wide receiver Brandon Stokley, acknowledged he’s the beneficiary of stout defensive line play, leaving the opposition scratching their heads trying to poke holes in the Pios’ front.

“For sure, it’s one of the best lines I’ve played on,” Kirsch said. “I wouldn’t have half the tackles if it wasn’t for them pushing the quarterback up; squeezing the down blocker. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t think I’d be where I am.”

Kirsch shares the team’s lead with Link with 58 tackles but holds the top spot in unassisted tackles (40), tackles for loss (22 for minus-110 yards), sacks (13) and forced fumbles (three). His 22 quarterback hurries are second to Link’s 27.

“He’s just so quick off the ball, and his hands are so quick, which is an asset a lot of kids don’t have,” Cook said of Kirsch. “His will is the kind you want to have when a guy wants to be in on every play. He’s driven to do well and goes at it every play.”

Three years ago Kirsch, the fifth defensive tackle in Notre Dame’s rotation, played sparingly during the course of the season until an injury in the Class 3A state championship game necessitated him playing the entire second half of the Pios’ 42-7 loss to Parkview Baptist.

The experience hastened his development somewhat, preparing Kirsch to start the 2013 season where he earned first- team All-District 6-3A honors for a team that lost 14-10 to Parkview in the quarterfinals.

That set the stage for a challenging offseason, where everyone, including Kirsch, dedicated themselves to making a run back to the state championship game, where the Pios are now one tantalizing step away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

“We had a great offseason, and it’s really helped us to where we are now,” Kirsch said. “It’s made a difference in our season. It’s been even better than I’d hoped. It’s been great.”