Shadle Park football coach Alan Stanfield was unwavering at the start of the year in his expectation that the Highlanders’ defense would be much improved.
It’s almost as if Stanfield looked into a crystal ball and saw the season play out before it started.
Shadle’s defense has not only been improved, it’s been measurably improved. After ranking seventh in the Greater Spokane League a year ago, the Highlanders had the third-best defense statistically this fall.
The offense – particularly the wide receivers and specifically the quarterback – has received much of the attention this season. The defense, to an extent, has been overshadowed.
It makes no never mind to the defensive leaders.
“We don’t care who gets the articles, the headlines,” senior safety Jake Geldbach said.
“Our offense knows we’ve done a great job,” said senior middle linebacker Quentin Wilson, the defense’s inspirational leader.
Stanfield knows his team wouldn’t be playing in the State 3A quarterfinals without a stout defense.
The offense got Shadle to this point last year, but the defense failed to keep its end of the bargain.
In their playoff opener last Friday, Shadle’s defense bailed out the usually high-octane offense, limiting Mt. Spokane to seven points.
The challenge increases Saturday afternoon when the Highlanders (10-1) travel to Kennewick to take on Mid-Columbia Conference 3A power Kamiakin (8-2). Kickoff at Lampson Stadium is at 2 p.m..
Shadle takes on a team that might be as balanced as any it has faced this season. The Braves can pass and run equally well.
Lately, though, Kamiakin has relied on a power running game led by Umid Ramizov, a native of Turkey. He rushed 35 times last week for 197 yards.
“We’re real balanced in what we do,” Kamiakin coach Scott Biglin said. “We take what teams give us.”
Shadle doesn’t plan on giving much. The Highlanders prep each week against the best passing attack in the region if not the state. So they’re more than comfortable dealing with teams that have a propensity to pass.
And they welcome any team that wants to pound the ball. The Highlanders aren’t especially big but they’re quick and athletic.
Take Wilson, for example. He’s 5-foot-6 and 200 pounds and plopped right in the middle of Shadle’s defense.
“Teams look at us with our three-man front and me out there and they think they can run it up the middle against us,” Wilson said. “I want them to run. We’re not the biggest but we have heart.”
And lots of talent. Senior safety Kyle Kinney led Shadle in tackles in league play with 64. He was followed by Geldbach (61) and Wilson (40 1/2).
Anchoring the line at nose guard is junior Zach Price, who bulked up from 210 pounds a year ago to tipping the scale at 260 this season.
Price’s top priority is trying to occupy blockers – at times as many as two – so his linebackers and safeties can fill and make tackles.
“We’ve been a lot more confident going into games this year,” Price said of one of the biggest differences this year over last year. “Our speed and strength are a lot better.”
Kinney said the defense is made up of 11 cohesive parts.
“We’re playing as a team way better than last year,” Kinney said. “We’re focusing on our own jobs and not our teammates’ jobs.”
That’s led to increased trust.
“We’re all brothers,” Wilson said. “The trust is a big thing for me.”
Wilson also doesn’t see practice as mundane.
“Practice for us is like recess,” Wilson said.
The Highlanders have cherished each practice since the postseason began because they know the season could end any time.
That’s provided more inspiration to Price. As an underclassman, he’s playing for the seniors.
“Before games we talk about the feeling the seniors had last year in the last game against Kennewick,” Price said. “I’m not playing for myself, I’m playing for them.”
To a player, the Highlanders believe they haven’t played their best yet.
“There’s always room for improvement,” Kinney said. “Not all 11 players play their best every game.”
Another thing that has assisted the defense this season is all 11 starters play exclusively on defense. In fact, Shadle starts 22 different players.
So they’re as fresh as possible each time they take the field.
“We’re not overly big and we won’t overwhelm you when we walk off the bus,” Stanfield said. “But we have speed and athleticism and I wouldn’t trade that for size.”
Said Geldbach: “And we’re fearless.”
The Highlanders have gone from a defense that hoped teams would turn the ball over so they could get off the field last year to a team that creates turnovers and makes stops.
So when the game is over Saturday, it won’t matter who had the most tackles.
“The only thing that matters is we’re singing the fight song in the end,” Wilson said.
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review's sports newsletter
Get the day's top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.