Improved defense key for Eagles in state playoffs

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Defenders Justin Griffin (54), Larson McDaniel (8) and Tobe Umerah (63) swarm Mount de Sales runner in Oct. 23 game. (Photo courtesy of STRATFORD ACADEMY.)

BY LIZZI CLAYTON, Gazebo Assistant Editor

There have been many factors which have led the Stratford Academy Eagles to a 9-3 record and spot in the GHSA Class A semifinals tonight against Aquinas.

The offense has to make touchdowns. The running backs have to find holes, and the quarterback has to make good passes. The Eagles have been very good at all of that.

But the game also relies on the defense, which has to stop the other team from doing the same.

This season, the defense got off to a difficult start, giving up an average of 38.6 points in the first three games. The Eagles were 1-2.

Over the past nine games, the Stratford defenders have allowed just 15.2 points per contest. And, if you take out the 48 points they surrendered against Aquinas on Nov. 6 in the region championship, it drops to 9.8 points per game.

Saving their best for last, the Eagles have given up 22 points in the state playoffs in solid victories over Savannah Day and Pinecrest.

“I just think they’ve raised their level of play,” said Stratford head coach Mark Farriba. “To me, they’ve made the biggest improvement and the biggest jump in terms of what they’ve done in the last two weeks than any group on the field.

Justin Griffin, a junior defensive end for the Eagles, said the team has together and practiced well late in the season. The strong bond has produced great results.

“I think that’s a major factor to it because when you get on the field it’s not just a random group of guys, they’re your team and they’ve got your back,” Griffin said.

Sophomore defensive tackle Tobe Umerah leads the Eagles with 124 total tackles and 11 tackles for loss. Sophomore linebacker Larson McDaniel has 91 tackles and eight tackles for loss. Senior linebacker Jack Peterson has 82 tackles and recovered three fumbles. Senior safety Quintez Cephus has six interceptions.

Continuing to make stops on defense will be crucial against the high-powered offense of the Fighting Irish.

“That’ll be the real key of the game to me is how well we can do defensively against their offense,” Farriba said.

“We’ve come a long way,” said Griffin. “I think the defense can help win the game for sure.”