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Stingy defense guiding Bulldogs in run to semis

by Jason Avery | November 19, 2021 at 12:00 a.m.

If there is one thing the 8-Man South conference has shown, it’s that the offenses can make scoreboard operators pretty busy.

Although Strong and Mountain Pine are the only schools still competing, the only team in the league to score fewer than 200 points this season was Hermitage.

Mountain Pine heads into their semifinal showdown against Rector having scored a whopping 500 points, the most in the eight-man ranks by 126 points.

Strong themselves has scored 332 points, but it’s in the points allowed column where they have really shined.

Heading into their 10th game, Strong has allowed only 114 points this season, the fewest in the eight-man ranks with Rector second at 126.

“You hear the cliché all the time that defense wins championships,” Strong coach Sirl Wright said. “That’s what I try to instill in our kids is to play sound defense. If they can’t score, they can’t win.”

But while the Bulldogs have permitted only Mountain Pine and Woodlawn to score more than 20 points in a game this season, the unit has become a source of scoring down the stretch.

Against Spring Hill, LaQuincy Shelton returned an interception 96 yards for a score.

In their win over Cedar Ridge to start the playoffs last week, the Bulldogs’ defense scored two touchdowns with Cedrick Brown and Treveon Daniels each returning interceptions back for touchdowns spanning 46 and 84 yards, respectively.

“We were kind of weak on the defensive backside at the beginning of the year because we had some inexperienced guys, but as the season has progressed, they have gotten a lot better,” Wright said. “We’re communicating a lot better, and with that communication, we’re recognizing sets and exploiting the teams that are trying to exploit us by just working on their keys. They’re doing a heck of a job because it started with Spring Hill where we shut down their best receiver, and I just challenged the secondary.

“I took one practice, and it was a defensive back practice, and let everybody and anybody have a shot at those positions. Those kids stepped it up after that week and understood their roles. We still make mistakes just like anybody else, but they’ve come a long way.

“The energy in that secondary, they’re kind of ballhawking right now. When that ball is thrown out there and if it’s available, we’re going to try and take it to the house every time.”

And while the secondary has been critical to the Bulldogs’ success down the stretch, seniors Byron Maze and Jayme Correa help set the tone for the unit.

Against Brinkley, who Strong faces in the semifinals tonight, Maze had 12 tackles with seven going for a loss. He had two sacks, forced three fumbles and recovered one. He also had 20 tackles against Spring Hill as well.

Last week against Cedar Ridge, Correa had 11 tackles, including three for a loss. Against Spring Hill, he had 22 tackles including 15 solo stops in a road win that clinched home-field advantage for the Bulldogs in the playoffs.

“They’re awesome,” Wright said of the duo. “They’re two of our team leaders. Of course, Byron is an all-around athlete. He plays every sport that we have at Strong. He utilizes that knowledge and a lot comes with football IQ, recognizing sets, being a leader, working hard in the weight room and all of those things.

“Jayme is that kid that stands out in the weight room. He’s one of our stronger kids. As far as our offseason awards, he wins a lot of those. From there, it’s paying off for him. I’m proud of all my kids, but those two really have showed leadership throughout their careers at Strong. They’re seniors now and I hate to lose them, but at the same time, they have put in the work and it’s paying off for them.”

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