BURNABY — Ask Sam Steele to describe the defence of his St. Thomas More Knights and the response of the Grade 11 tackling machine is akin to taking an arm and wiping all the schematic X’s and O’s off a pre-game chalkboard.
“It’s a state of mind,” the star tackle and B.C. AAA Defensive Player of the Year said last Saturday after the Knights topped the Notre Dame Jugglers 32-13 to set up a Subway Bowl semifinal clash against the Terry Fox Ravens this Saturday (7:30 p.m.) under the dome at B.C. Place Stadium.
The winner faces the winner of the day’s first semifinal (5 p.m.) between New Westminster and South Delta.
“There isn’t… I can’t really describe it any other way,” Steele continued of a unit which began the non-conference season with three straight shutout wins and has only amped up the intensity en route to a 9-0 mark heading into play this weekend. “It’s controlled aggression but controlled just enough to direct it where you need it. I think that if we continue what we’re doing, we can possibly have a shot at winning the season.”
The Knights’ offence has been every bit the rival of past teams who have headed into late November with a No. 2 provincial AAA ranking.
This is dangerous territory to explore because it is virtually impossible to simply use points allowed as a measure of a team’s overall defensive rating, and because there are ups and downs each year with the competition it’s even tougher to tell.
Yet there seems no doubt that a universal truth exists about the kids who have populated the defensive side of the ball for the Burnaby school, and it’s this: If you were going to put a really short list of the best defensive teams to ever play B.C. high school football, this STM team would have to be on any that you compile.
The first team you would want to compare them against, the 12-0 Terry Fox Ravens of 2008, considered by many the greatest team in B.C. history, were much more accomplished offensively and still brought a savage defensive mentality.
They outscored their dozen foes that season by an average score of 47-9.
The Knights don’t match in points scored, yet their average score through nine games of 36-5 is very impressive.
The 2008 Ravens won by an average margin of 37.6 points, while the 2017 Knights have done it by an average margin of 31.2 points.
Here is their complete list of scores for the season:
St. Thomas More 34 Holy Cross 0
St. Thomas More 38 Abbotsford 0
St. Thomas More 57 Centennial 0
St. Thomas More 15 Terry Fox 8
St. Thomas More 24 Lord Tweedsmuir 19
St. Thomas More 49 Mt. Boucherie 0
St. Thomas More 58 W.J. Mouat 0
St. Thomas More 21 Mission 7
St. Thomas More 32 Notre Dame 13
While it’s true they have not faced the vaunted offences of New Westminster, South Delta and Seaquam, they have still managed five shutouts and over their last four games, its defence has allowed just two touchdowns.
In fact, if you take out the 19 points that Lord Tweedsmuir scored against them, STM averaged just percentage points above a field-goal allowed per game all season. Regardless of the state of the rest of AAA football, and this is by no means a poor year, it is impressive.
“That team we just beat averaged 30 points-a-game this year, and we just held them to 12, and one touchdown came on special teams,” STM head coach Steve De Lazzari said after the Knights topped Notre Dame last week.
Clearly, there is talent all over the defence, one which played last Saturday without one of its very best tacklers in linebacker Tyler Eckert.
Jonah Fridfinnson has a team-leading 57 tackles out of the secondary, while Steele has 51 tackles and 13 sacks. Eckert has 25 tackles and 10 sacks, linebacker Mateo Carteri 35, safety David Osho 33 and corner Luke Benedet 25. In total, 14 Knights have double-digit tackles through nine games.
Ask Steele when he figures the guys on the defence looked each other in the eye and realized they were all potentially a part of something pretty special?
“I think it was after the Fox game,” Steele says of the 15-8 conference-opening win over the defending champion and preseason No. 1 Ravens on the road in early October at Coquitlam’s Percy Perry Stadium. “Our coach (Bernie Kully) had passed away, and we really realized what we could do. It was a tough time. It pushed us to our limits and that is what has really triggered this season. It gave us more to push on with.”
Adds De Lazzari, who moved up from the JV program at the start of the season to take the senior team’s reigns while Kully battled valiantly with his cancer: “In all honesty, this is coach Kully’s imprint. That code belongs to him and I have just carried his torch. His philosophy is my philosophy.”
Steele continues to try to make tangible sense of something which he knows has blossomed because of its intangibles.
“It’s a unit,” he begins. “There is not one individual. You come together as one. It’s all a state of mind. When you walk on the field, you never give up. That is all I can say.”
That’s OK because you really can’t say it any better.
No one knows what the outcome will be after Saturday’s big game between two super football teams, but what is already certain is that the group of kids wearing red could not have done any more to honour the spirit of a coach who taught them all how to really play the game.
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