Defense leads Upper Dublin to 4A Eastern Finals

UPPER DUBLIN >> At the start of this scholastic football season, Upper Dublin High assistant coach Paul Winters asked head coach Bret Stover what he thought the team’s best unit was.

“I told Paul I thought it was our defense,” Stover said. “And 15 weeks later I still feel that way.”

A shocking statement?

On the surface, it sure appears that way.

But as Upper Dublin (14-0) prepares to face Parkland (13-1) in the PIAA Class AAAA Eastern Finals (Saturday, 1 p.m., Souderton Area High School), Stover is not about to back off his statement.

First of all, let it be known that the Cardinals offense is not chopped liver.

It has accounted for 610 points in 14 games (that’s better than 43 points per start), while quarterback Ryan Stover has thrown for nearly 2,300 yards and rushed for nearly 1,000. Running back Kaleif Lee is a 1,000-yard rusher.

Not too shabby, eh?

So why is the Cardinals head coach so fired up about his defense?

Once again, let’s consult the numbers.

In 14 starts, the Upper Dublin defenders have yielded just 16 touchdowns, only once this year have the Cardinals allowed more than 14 points (last week) and just seven touchdowns in four playoff games against programs from schools that dwarf the Cardinals in sheer number of bodies.

Despite a distinct lack of size, the Cardinals dominated Upper Darby, 45-14, overwhelming a Royals team that was supposed to use its size and speed to fly past the Cardinals defense.

The following week, in a District One semifinal rematch against a Pennsbury team that had ended their season a year ago, the Cardinals got right down in the trenches with the Falcons and held their vaunted “Ground and Pound” offense to under 100 yards rushing.

Last week, against the playoff-tested veterans North Penn, the Cardinals took the Knights’ best shots in the first half, then blanked them over the final 24 minutes to emerge with a 46-21 win – and the program’s first District One crown.

Now, a win away from the state championship game, the Cardinals face another vaunted offense – that of the Trojans, which features the three-pronged threat of Boston College recruit Devante Cross (2,424 passing yds., 1,352 rushing yds., a combined 41 touchdowns), wideout and Temple recruit Kenny Yeboah (62 receptions, 974 yds., 12 TDs) and running back Erik DiGirolamo (164 carries, 1,078 yds., 20 TDs).


Let’s say not any more than usual.

After all, in a game earlier this year against Springfield, Coach Stover won the opening coin toss and chose to kick – not defer – kick.

That’s how much faith he has in his defense.

As for the defenders themselves, they like being cast in the role of underdogs.

“We’re all just a bunch of tough kids who are prepared very well every week by our coaches to do what we do,” said linebacker Jack Rapine.

“We’ve been playing together for so long, we trust each other,” added middle linebacker Stacey Gardner. “No, we’re not that big, but we’re usually more athletic than the teams we face, and we use that advantage.”

So bring on the oversized, 300-pound behemoths.

The Cardinals refuse to back down.

“We just have a nastiness to us,” said down lineman Kane O’Connor. “We try and go out and make plays.

“We’re quick off the ball and we stay low, and we’ve been doing this since July and August, so we’re conditioned well enough.”

O’Connor, Coach Stover said, has a vital role against Parkland.

“He has to consume other players so that our linebackers can make tackles,” Stover said. “That’s the thing about this group. Nobody is selfish, they’re all selfless.”

One of the Cardinals defenders, Isaiah Henrich, was a few minutes away from meeting his former school, La Salle, in the Eastern finals.

But when the Explorers came up short in overtime against Parkland, Henrich was only slightly disappointed.

“I wanted to play La Salle, that would have been fun,” he said. “But I like the challenge of playing a new team. Parkland’s very good. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.”

And whatever happens, the Cardinals will have enjoyed a magical season together as part of a longstanding friendship that began for many of them when they were playing together as third graders.

“This club has been together since middle school, and for some of us, a lot longer than that,” said linebacker Henry Winebrake, headed to the University of Chicago to play football next year. “My best friends are all on this team.”

Friends that communicate on a daily basis – both at school, on the field and beyond.

“I was out with mononucleosis and missed last week’s game,” said defensive back Michael Sowers. “We have a football group chat (on the Internet), and when I told the guys I was out last week because I was sick, they didn’t say, ‘Too bad,’ they said, ‘We’ve got your back.’”

Whether this magical mystery tour ends Saturday or next week in Hershey in the state finals, it will be a season to remember.

“We want everybody on this team along for the ride,” Gardner said. “We want everybody along to see how this journey ends.”

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