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Game of the Week: Defenses getting better deep in the postseason

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

La CROSSE -- Last Friday, the La Crosse High School football team played host to Brookville/Ell-Saline in the first round of the Class 2-1A playoffs. The Leopards had averaged 45.3 points per contest, while Ell-Saline had tallied 36.8 points a game.

La Crosse won 35-6. It was the fewest points for the Leopards since Week 1 and the Cardinals' fewest points all season.

In Oakley, the Plainsmen defeated Johnson-Stanton County, 14-12. During the regular season, Oakley averaged 29.1 points per game, while Stanton County scored 38.2 per contest. However, the low scoring games continued a trend in the postseason, especially for La Crosse.

"The defenses get better," fourth-year La Crosse coach Jon Webster said. "The offenses, I don't think they get any worse. It's just that you face teams that are sound defensively and don't maybe give you that one thing that they don't adjust to. Because good defense is what arries you through the playoffs."

Last season, La Crosse won playoff games 34-0, 21-12 and 13-6 before it lost 20-14 in overtime to Centralia in the Class 2-1A state championship game.

Oakley has played 23 playoff contests in the last 10 seasons, including a 3-0 game against Ellis in the third round of the 2009 postseason.

"Those teams that are successful find a way to take away what you do best," Webster said. "It's up to the offense to figure out how to counterpunch that. I never expect high-scoring games in playoff games, especially with the ones that we have been involved in with the last few years, because of the defenses that are involved."

On Friday, La Crosse, 10-0 and ranked No. 1 in Class 2-1A in the statewide media poll, plays host to Oakley (7-2) in the second round of the playoffs. After having one home game in the playoffs last season, the Leopards will have their second one this fall in front of new facilities.

This marks the first meeting between the squads since a 12-0 Oakley victory in the 2007 playoffs. The teams also split postseason contests in 2005 (a 46-0 Oakley win) and 2006 (a 56-28 La Crosse victory).

"It is pretty nice," senior Trey Renz said. "I do like the naps in the locker room before the game. It's awesome, because you get those La Crosse fans that maybe can't travel as far and they can actually come see the game. It's pretty cool."

While both squads have traditionally strong offenses -- especially La Crosse this year -- the teams each rank in the top-10 in the classification in scoring defense. The Leopards have outscored opponents 424-108, while Oakley has collectively beaten teams 286-116.

Oakley has won its last three games against Oberlin-Decatur Community, Ellis and Stanton County 16-6, 18-12 in overtime and 14-12.

"I know that's just the system that we use and it's been good for us," Oakley coach Randall Rath said. "That's kind of the way that we have tried to do things and sell to our kids that we feel if we play good defense, then we will always have an opportunity to win the football game."

Since the start of the 2004 season, Oakley has an 80-18 record and has won at least seven games every year except one. Under Rath, the Plainsmen have allowed just 11.1 points per game in that span. La Crosse is 87-15 with six double-digit victory seasons in the last seven years. The Leopards have allowed 15.9 points since the start of 2004.

Smith Center and Meade, the other two top Class 2-1A teams in the west in the last eight years, have allowed 10.7 points and 14.9 points per contest, respectively.

This season, La Crosse and Oakley have veteran lines with multiple seniors up front. The Leopards have veterans in seniors Matt Wagner, Renz and Nate Ruff, while sophomore Sheldon Schmidt and junior Jake Reifschneider have played well up front in their first year as full-time starters. Schmidt, the team's leader in sacks and also its starting kicker, injured his hip last Friday and is questionable for Oakley. If he can't play, senior Derrick Depperschmidt, a team captain, will start.

Renz has played with a cast after he broke his hand nearly a month ago. The coaches moved him inside on defense because of the injury, but Renz has never complained and still played solid.

"We are all working as a team, and we take it as a personal challenge to go up against the best lines in the state," Renz said. ""It's not that much fun for us to go up against a team that doesn't even know a proper three-point stance. We like teams like Oakley, like Plainville, that have pretty good lines. We just take it as a personal challenge to beat the person across from us."

La Crosse, under defensive coordinator Bill Keeley, the former Leopard head coach, mainly run a 4-3, but used multiple coverages against Ell-Saline's passing attack last week. Senior linebacker Kip Keeley recorded six tackles, a sack and a quarterback hurry and leads the team with 72 stops.

"Tried to get it to where they weren't predictable," Webster said. "Because we noticed on film, once (Ell-Saline) figured out what you were doing, they could adjust to it pretty easy."

Oakley has long played a relatively simple defense. The Railers' base is a 4-3, but they've used a five-man front depending on the personnel. Oakley have usually had a strong nose guard and has one again in 6-foot-2, 250-pound sophomore Ryan Kuhn. Rath said Kuhn "played tremendously" versus Stanton County and should be a great player by the time he is a senior.

"I know that when we play other teams, they probably wonder what we are doing because we don't change much," Rath said. "We feel if we know what we are doing, it makes us a lot faster defensively. I am just a big believer in getting aligned properly.

"I think that's huge in any level of football, especially in high school," he added. "We try to get aligned right, and the quicker you can get there, the presnap reads are a lot easier for us to determine, and that's something we stress a lot."