The change is ever so subtle at first, but Avon Lake’s Sean Oxley cues in on it instantly. There’s an avoidance of eye contact in his opponent, a slowness of step … then it begins. Slowly but surely, the onrush of the Shoremen’s defense takes its toll.
“We always say you want to get the first punch in there,” said senior defensive end Oxley. “And once you do that to a team, you can feel it wear on them both physically and mentally. You keep doing it, and after a while it just seems like they don’t want to even play anymore.”
The Shoremen try to grind the will out of their opponents, like squeezing the air out of a balloon. The harder the pressure, the faster it deflates. Avon Lake followed this pattern to perfection during the regular season — building a 10-0 record — and will attempt to apply it tonight at the start of the regional quarterfinals. The Shoremen, the top seed in Division II’s Region 6, host eighth-seeded Midview (8-2).
Avon Lake has given up 126 points this season, a meager 12.6 per-game average. But that number does not begin to illustrate the effectiveness of the Shoremen attack. Fifty-four of those points came in the fourth quarter of blowout victories, long after the starters had been replaced by second-teamers. Avon Lake has allowed only three first-quarter touchdowns — two of which came in the first week of the season — and against their last four opponents the Shoremen’s starting unit has allowed just six points. For the year, teams are averaging just 2.7 yards per carry.
The Shoremen have overwhelmed opponents and put games away early. In the only instance in which a game was in doubt, back on Sept. 28 when North Olmsted jumped ahead 20-7, Avon Lake rattled off 34 consecutive points to close out the victory.
Last week, Avon Lake held Southwestern Conference rival Amherst to just 156 total yards. Afterward, coach Kevin Fell lamented, “We couldn’t move the football. Their defense was as good as any we’ve seen. We couldn’t counter. We couldn’t run off tackle.”
There are no grand schemes that make the Avon Lake defense work. The team has followed the same rudimentary principles of past years: five down linemen — led by defensive tackles Aaron Grunick, Sam Brown and Sean McCann — clogging the middle, freeing defensive ends Oxley and Zach Murray and linebackers Mike Haddad and Dave Henderson to race sideline to sideline making tackles.
When Avon Lake coach Dave Dlugosz sits down with his coaching staff during the summer to determine which players can best be utilized, he follows a fairly simple guide.
“When we put our defense together every year, we start by taking our 11 best athletes and find a way to make them fit,” said Dlugosz. “Typically, the offense gets all the press and all the notoriety. But we know it all starts with having a good, solid defense. It’s the base of what we do. And if they’re good enough athletes to play both ways, great. If not, they’re going to play defense.”
But according to senior cornerback Kevin Mansnerus, athletic ability is about only half of the equation.
“We’re a fast group and we like to hit hard, but I think what makes it really work is how much chemistry we have together,” said Mansnerus. “In the last half of the year, that’s been the biggest change. We’re not just great athletes — we know how to play together.”
Oxley grew up in Indiana with a lifelong love of football. But it wasn’t until he moved to Avon Lake that he appreciated what a hold the game has on the community.
“It was totally different,” he said. “Football is just really intense and I don’t think people appreciate that that don’t live here. It’s the atmosphere.”
From an early age, football is taught as a physical, punishing game. Grunick recalls his middle school years as a rigorous education in the rules of the game and technique.
“By my freshman year, it was totally different,” said Grunick. “They’re teaching you how to hit harder and get stronger.”
One of the first philosophies ingrained in Avon Lake football is winning the battle of first down — forcing opponents into long-yardage situations and a minimum of third-and-shorts. By establishing that advantage, the Shoremen force opponents to abandon a balanced attack.
“It’s so important to control first down,” Avon Lake defensive coordinator Ed Citro said. “Even with the way teams are passing now, it still comes down to whether you can force somebody into being one-dimensional. If you can take away the running game and force them to pass, it allows you to do so many more things.”
Opposing teams have tried to puncture the Shoremen defense with minimal success. In the first game of the year, Avon scored three first-half touchdowns on the strength of its game-breaking athleticism at the skill positions. But by midway through the second quarter, Avon Lake had adjusted and snuffed out the Eagles’ fire.
North Olmsted utilized a similar approach — getting its athletes into open space and pushing the Shoremen backward.
Midview will try this, but in a different manner. Middies quarterback Adam Koubek is used out of the shotgun in a spread formation and has passed for 1,082 yards and led the team in rushing with 527 yards.
“We’re going to have to try to put more athletic kids, some faster kids that can run in space, rather than the big defensive linemen (on the field),” said Dlugosz. “Midview is basically a running team, not a passing team.”
No matter what the style, the Shoremen for the most part try to force teams to adapt to them. There is little to no trickery. And the principal inevitably comes back to the same single element — being physical and draining the opponent of its will.
“We take a lot of pride in being a solid defense every game and every year,” said Oxley. “You take away what the other team does best and force them into doing something they don’t do well. And you keep hitting them hard.”
Contact Pete Alpern at 329-7137 or email@example.com.