WEST CHESTER >> West Chester Henderson’s defense, which has not allowed a touchdown in the last nine quarters, does not overwhelm opponents with a great deal of size.
But the Warriors’ defense is scrappy, speedy and smart, led by senior middle linebacker Ryan Brida (6-0, 205).
“Ryan Brida is the heart and soul of our defense,” said Henderson head coach Steve Mitten. “He’s very much a physical force, and works hard both on the field and in the weight room.”
Brida said, “Our defense definitely has heart, passion, drive for the ball and the desire to make hits and make plays. The size of your heart is what counts in football, and it doesn’t matter if you’re 6-foot-9 or 5-foot-3.”
Mitten said, “Our defense has played exceptionally this season. We’re a small school in a big school league that relies on tough defense and a good running attack.”
Up front, the Warriors have relied on senior defensive lineman Noah Demi (5-8, 185), a second-year starter, and senior defensive end Jon Earley (6-1, 180).
“Noah is an undersized guy with a lot of quickness, and Jon is steady, good at setting the edge,” said Mitten.
At outside linebacker, senior Ryan DiFabrizio (5-5, 155) is a scrappy and helpful on-field complement to Brida. As middle linebacker, Brida checks the opponent’s offensive formation then makes sure the defensive linemen are lined up properly, but relies on on-field feedback from teammates like DiFabrizio.
“DiFab and I have played togther since eighth grade, and we know each other’s tendencies,” Brida said. “Sometimes we’ll do crash reading, where one of us will go outside, while the other goes inside.”
Last week against Owen J. Roberts, Brida and his teammates made an on-field adjustment that led to a 14-yard interception return for a touchdown by junior defensive back Jack Saulino.
“We saw [their] slot receiver shift to the right, so one of our linebackers slid over,” said Brida. “I got good coverage on their No. 2 receiver, our defensive line pressured their quarterback and Jack made a great interception.”
In the defensive backfield, the Warrior standouts so far this season have been senior Mark Rizzo (5-11, 165), whom Mitten calls “a good cover guy,” and senior Dom Palmer (5-10, 180), whom Mitten said, “has been very steady for us.”
Last season, Henderson finished 1-9, which stung the Warriors’ pride during the offseason.
“In the off-season, we knew we didn’t want to be 1-9 again,” Brida said. “So for the [voluntary] workouts in the summer, nearly everyone came out. We had a great turnout.”
Mitten said, “The turning point was last winter, spring and summer in the weight room. Our coaches and players take a lot of pride in the program we’ve built here, a program that goes all the way back to 1895.”
The Henderson offense has been carrying its share of the load in the Warriors’ 3-0 start. Last week against Owen J. Roberts, the Warriors gained nearly 400 yards rushing, led by junior C.J. Preston (245 yards on 24 carries, three touchdowns) and Palmer (106 rushing yards, one touchdown.)
“All the work that CJ did last spring [as a member of the Henderson track team] has paid off,” Mitten said. “As well as all the work he did in the weight room. He’s got great speed, and he’s a great kid. [Against Owen J. Roberts] we got great blocking up front and on the perimeter.”
While morale is high on the Henderson squad, the Warriors realize that most of the season has yet to play out — and Friday night Henderson will host Coatesville, fresh off a 54-20 win against Council Rock North.
“We know what’s ahead of us,” Brida said. “Our goal each week is just to go 1-0 for that week.”
Mitten said, “We are working really hard to be competitive this Friday night.”