McKinley’s ‘D’ major cog in team’s 4-1 start
There wasn’t a lot of time for McKinley’s defense to regroup.
Scotlandville running back Dontrell Hilliard had pulled his team to within a point in overtime when the Hornets, trailing by a point, called a timeout to decide whether to kick the tying extra point or go for the victory.
With emotions running high and anticipation building on both sidelines Scotlandville elected to stay aggressive and challenged McKinley’s defense once again with Hilliard barreling into the teeth of the Panthers’ front seven.
This time, with senior defensive backs Delwin Rodney and Dud Hines coming up for run support, McKinley not only won that battle and stopped Hilliard short of the goal line but the Panthers hung on to a 20-19 victory.
“We knew we had to get the stop to win,” McKinley senior defensive end Reggie Ware said. “We went out there and stopped him. It was great.”
The conclusion was representative of a nondistrict stretch of games in which McKinley (4-1) has relied heavily on its veteran defense heading into Friday’s District 5-5A home opener against East Ascension (2-3) at 7 p.m.
“Some games have been ugly because they’ve been defensive wins in a sense,” McKinley coach Robert Signater. “If we can keep it going that way, we’ll take it.”
McKinley has already matched last year’s win total and has designs on accomplishing something the 2011 team failed to achieve — postseason play. Signater realized early in spring training and throughout the summer that for the Panthers to be a playoff team their defense had to be the cornerstone of such a push.
“I feel like if we all play up to our capabilities we’ll be fine,” said senior cornerback Dave White. “We’ve just got to finish strong going into the most important part of our schedule.”
With the loss of several key skill position players and offensive linemen from a year ago, McKinley’s defense, with the return of seven senior starters and nine starters overall, has upheld its end of the bargain while the offense continues to develop.
More than half of those defensive starters were three-year starters with interior linemen Shawn Tolbert and Ware leading the charge up front while outside linebacker Alvin Vaughn and White have brought additional experience to a unit revered for its ability rush the passer and cover in the secondary.
“It has to be the best defense since I’ve been here,” White said. “Everybody really challenges each other to play well and play as a unit and play disciplined. We really strive on not letting people score.”
They took that to heart with consecutive shutouts to start the season, including a 22-0 decision over archrival Capitol, and McKinley’s defense has allowed just 9.8 points per game — a reduction of 12 points from last season.
“It was good last year, but I think it’s even better,” Vaughn said of the team’s defense. “We have more seniors on the defense. We’re all close friends. We stick together.”
McKinley limited Northside to only one offensive touchdown in Week 3 but suffered a 13-7 loss when the offense, which netted 80 yards, had a fumble recovered in the end zone.
When the defense has not created favorable field position, they’ve tried to produce additional possessions through forcing turnovers.
Tevante Bennett’s interception, one of two in the Northside game (White had the other), set up McKinley’s lone touchdown. In a 56-0 win over Glen Oaks, the Panthers forced five turnovers, with Ware returning a fumble 40 yards for a score.
A week after the disappointing Northside loss, McKinley gave a clear indication of its resolve in a back-and-forth tussle with Class 1A state semifinalist West St. John.
The Panthers overcame a fourth-quarter deficit and held the Rams scoreless despite two late trips inside the 10-yard line. McKinley survived another tense, late-game scenario a week later against Scotlandville.
“A lot of us having been playing together through middle school and JV ball,” said Rodney, who had an interception and 52-yard return in the win over Scotlandville. “We know how each other plays, and we all try to help each other. There’s no fighting because we’ve been together so long. We just try and encourage each other to be the best.”