NORMAL — A Normal West High School football team that surrendered 37.2 points per game finished at 5-5 in 2016.
A Wildcats squad that allowed 26.2 points in 2017 had an 8-3 record.
The current West defense is giving up 21.8 points per outing and is still alive in the quarterfinals of the Class 6A playoffs.
That’s exactly what first-year Wildcats coach Nathan Fincham had in mind.
“Historically, we have not always been great on defense,” Fincham said. “That’s something I wanted to put a major emphasis on with the understanding that in late October and November you’ve got to have a great defense to move on.”
West’s next move is a trip to Oak Lawn to face No. 2-ranked Richards in a 6 p.m. quarterfinal game Saturday.
The No. 6-ranked Wildcats are 10-1 and riding a nine-game winning streak behind an improved defense and a typically explosive offense.
“It’s definitely an aggression and minimizing our mistakes,” defensive tackle Skyler Hufeld said. “We’ve really emphasized being relentless, staying on the ball and flowing to where the ball is. We make sure we overwhelm them at the point of attack.”
Inside linebackers Garrett Rhode and Zack Marcotte top West in tackles with 92 and 87, respectively. Both have 11 stops for loss yardage. Hufeld has recorded 67 tackles with a team-high 16½ tackles for loss.
“We’ve got a lot of experience under our belts. We have the same defensive coordinator (Michael Jennings), and we’re doing the same stuff we did last year,” said Marcotte. “Our turnovers have a lot to do with that, too. We’re stopping the offense in mid-stride with a turnover. That helps our offense spark and get a score for us.”
Rhode believes offseason work enabled the Wildcats to “get bigger, stronger, faster so we can put in more aggressive blitzes. Being more experienced is a big key. You can put yourself in the place you know you’re supposed to be.”
Tyler Ifft, Matt Marciniak and Shyheem Simmons join Hufeld on the defensive line.
Aimry Schieler and Josh Beverly are the outside linebackers in front of a secondary that consists of safeties Kaden Hargrove and Jake Ocker and cornerbacks Magnus Moeller and Gavin Tellor.
“All of our guys trust each other. We know we got each other’s backs,” Hargrove said. “In previous years it was ‘I’m going to do me.’ It’s different this season. We fight as a team, and that’s the key to our success this year.”
Fincham could tell over the summer his defense would be a strength.
“The physicality our defense plays with takes its toll,” said the West coach. “By the end of the game, our defense is doing whatever it wants to.”
Fincham said Rhode “plays with a great toughness. He’s been a model of that. Zach is physical as well, but he brings a speed element to the linebacker group. He’s able to get sideline to sideline and make impact plays most linebackers aren’t able to do.”
The 250-pound Hufeld has been dominant in the trenches, according to Fincham. “He’s a man-child inside. I don’t know if anybody has really blocked him this year,” Fincham said. “He plays with great leverage, and he’s athletic enough to make a lot of plays in the backfield.”
Fincham credits Hargrove with “getting us lined up right in the back end. He cleans it up for us and makes a lot of plays.”