Penn-Trafford defense up for any challenge

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Wednesday, September 18, 2019 | 4:57 PM


Penn-Trafford calls its defensive scheme, “Tribe.”

It’s rather appropriate because this group works as one.

“We have great chemistry, and we gang-tackle,” senior linebacker Chase Burk said. “If one guy messes up, another is there. We’ve got each other’s backs.”

The 3-3-5 stack defense the top-ranked Warriors roll out has played a key role in the team’s 4-0 start (3-0 Big East Conference).

Disarming opponents not only has been a collaborative effort between the linemen, linebackers and defensive backs, but it also has been systematic in its execution.

Each week presents a different gameplan, especially in a competitive 5A classification that can bring varying styles. This week, the Warriors travel to Washington High School (3-0) in Massillon, Ohio, where more defensive plays will be needed. The rare matchup, brought about by the departure of Albert Gallatin from the WPIAL and Penn-Trafford looking for a fill-in game, is intriguing.

Massillon, which made the state finals last year in Ohio’s second-largest classification, has more than 850 wins and has won 24 state titles and nine national championships. The Tigers were state runners-up last season. The game will be played at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium.

Two fan buses will follow the Warriors — and their defense — to Ohio.

The Warriors allowed a touchdown apiece in wins over Norwin (42-7), Gateway (28-7) and Connellsville (41-7).

Last week, despite allowing two scores against McKeesport, including a 91-yard touchdown run by quarterback Devari Robinson, the Warriors outgained the Tigers, 421-213, and held them to nine first downs.

“The defense has been really good,” Warriors coach John Ruane said. “I am happy with the way we have been able to play against different attacks. We’ve faced a passing attack (with Norwin), a multifaceted attack with Gateway and a running game with Connellsville. We’ve done well against all three.”

With changing opponents comes modified plans. The Warriors had to combat Jack Salopek and Norwin’s aerial game in Week Zero, faced Gateway’s balance in Week 1 and aimed to contain Connellsville’s rush last week. McKeesport had its moments early against the Warriors with the triple-option, but the offense was mostly ineffective in the second half.

The Warriors had two key players on crutches after the game in senior running backs Caleb Lisbon and Sam Fanelli. Both have knee injuries and could be out for an extended period of time. Fanelli is a key linebacker, and Lisbon patrols the secondary.

Backups looked up to the task last week, and the Warriors hope that is the case moving forward. The key, coaches say, is to streamline the strategy each week.

“My job is easy because I have great defensive coaches. I just coordinate them,” Warriors defensive coordinator Bob Westerlund said. “We try to keep things simple for our players and make them look as difficult as possible to opponents.”

Burk has led the charge, lining up inside or outside on certain plays, with senior Cole DiFillippo playing middle linebacker.

Burk has a team-high 48 tackles and a forced fumble. Fanelli has 20 tackles, and junior twins Nate and Mason Frye have 26 and 25 stops, respectively. DeFillippo has 18 tackles.

The secondary has five interceptions, including three by Lisbon, all of them coming against Gateway.

Penn-Trafford recorded a pair of safeties in the win over Connellsville.

“The key to the defense is the kids listening to the plan and following it,” Westerlund said. “They do all we ask of them. If they learn, we know we have a chance to win.”

As a former quarterback, Ruane is an offensive-minded coach. But he respects the job his assistants do to prepare the defense — and the players who buy in.

“I can’t explain how much time and effort my staff puts in each week,” Ruane said. “My coaches are excellent, so we never skip a beat.”

Massillon is not taking the Warriors lightly.

“The first thing you see is a team that is fundamentally doing good things and executing really good fundamentals,” Massillon coach Nate Moore told The Independent of Ohio. “You see a team doing things in all three phases that are sound. Beyond that, you see teams that are maximizing the personnel that they have. You put on the film of Penn-Trafford, you see all three of those things.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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