Concordia Lutheran senior linebacker Tony Perugini knew the Cadets' defense was talented, but he was not truly sure of its potential until Week 5.
“It was the Snider game, that was one where I felt we did really well,” Perugini said. “They are a really good team every year … and we held them to two touchdowns.
“We really knew we could pretty good then.”
The Cadets lost that game to the Panthers 14-13, but the defense's performance cemented Concordia's spot as an SAC team on the rise.
While players such as David Morrison, Jon Poore and Jake Minich have been studs on offensive, the Cadets' defense deserves a lot of the credit for Concordia's 8-3 record entering Friday's Class 3A Sectional 27 championship game against Bishop Luers (2-9).
“If you want to pinpoint two things about our defense, I would say it is senior driven and we play a physical, bigger type of football,” Concordia coach Tim Mannigel said. “Our front seven is arguably the best front seven Concordia has ever had, or at least certainly in a very long time.”
The Cadets' defensive front is experienced and talented. Along with Perugini, veterans such as Billy Fairfield, Conner Batchelder and Casey Heingartner have performed well with a blend of youth mixed in.
Sophomore Carter Batchelder is one of the best young linemen in the conference.
Concordia's defensive unit has only gotten better over the course of the season. Since surrendering 21 points in a Week 3 win over Wayne, the Cadets have given up more than 15 points only once – and that was a 35-27 victory at Brebeuf Jesuit in Week 9.
That is a far cry from last season, when nine of 10 opponents scored 21 or more points on the Cadets.
“If you look at last year's defense, we were probably more athletic, but for whatever reason we gave up more points,” Mannigel said. “We were certainly not as good along the front four as we are this year. We didn't think we were that far away, even though our 2-8 record would indicate a long way to go.”
The players felt they were on the cusp of sustained success as well. So in the off-season, the 16 seniors banded together to make this year a turnaround season. Offseason conditioning went well and camaraderie was built.
Even after an 0-2 start to this season, the team still believed.
“We had great athletes (last year) but not a lot of togetherness on the team,” Perugini said. “We weren't functioning as one unit, but practiced on that really hard in the offseason.”
The improved defense has given the Concordia coaching staff more options on both sides of the ball. Now, going for it on fourth down when you would typically punt is more of an option due to the confidence in the defense.
“It is a liberating feeling, knowing the defense is going to hold,” Mannigel said. “So far, so good.”
For the seniors, this year has been fun after just four victories combined the last three seasons.
“It is amazing the turnaround from 1-9 and 2-8 seasons to 6-3 (regular season),” Perugini said. “We are getting a lot of respect at our games and our stands our packed.
“It is nice to get some recognition.”