The last two weeks have been tough ones for the McLean High football defense, but for the most past this season the Highlanders’ `D,’ overseen by assistant coach and defensive coordinator Greg Sullivan, has been one of the great stories in the team’s terrific turnaround season.
“We don’t have a lot of superstars, but they play hard and they play together,” said Sullivan, who along with defensive line coach Steve Moll and linebackers coach Mike Noyes has helped the Highlanders play a more aggressive, physical brand of defensive football this season. “I don’t know if we will have any kids who will make first team All-[Liberty] District, but they all work hard, communicate and play well together.”
McLean is currently 5-4 under second year head coach Jim Patrick. While the team has lost two consecutive district games – a 55-17 road setback at improved Fairfax on Oct. 23 and a 38-21 home loss to defending Div. 5 Northern Region champion Stone Bridge last Friday night – the team’s overall fall campaign has been a huge success following last year’s 0-10 season.
Defense has been an integral part of the turnaround, although the breakdown in the loss to the Rebels two weeks ago was a setback.
“That was disappointing,” said Sullivan, of the game with Fairfax.
Going into the Fairfax game, Mclean had allowed an average of 19 points per game and allowed 14 points or less in wins over Washington-Lee (44-14 win), Wakefield (27-8) and Jefferson (38-0). Big plays allowed have hurt the Highlanders this season. But Sullivan’s crew has also forced 27 turnovers over the first nine games – 23 fumble recoveries and four interceptions. Last year’s McLean defense forced 13 turnovers.
Sullivan said he and his defensive assistants have stressed to his players the importance of trying to strip the ball away from opposing ball carriers this season.
“We didn’t [teach that] as much last year,” said Sullivan. “The first guy wraps up and the next guy comes in for the strip.”
The result has been the numerous turnovers forced and an all-around better defense. The statistical numbers of points allowed and big plays allowed have hurt the Highlanders, but the unit has also made vast improvement from a year ago thanks to a swarm-the-ball mindset and hard-nosed tackling.
“We’re not where we want to be yet, but we’re in the process,” said Sullivan, of the defense. “The kids work so hard and take directions real well. They don’t make excuses and accept responsibility for their actions. They are smart kids.”
McLean’s defensive leaders are outside linebacker Bobby Ludwick and lineman Anthony Maestri, both seniors. Sullivan has been pleased with the play of both players. He also said a big year has come from senior defensive end Joe Smith, who has forced several fumbles over the course of the schedule. Smith created two fumbles which led to touchdowns in McLean’s 24-21 district win at Madison’s homecoming on Sept. 25.
<b>MCLEAN</b> probably needs a win this Friday night at home against cross-town and district rival Langley in order to assure itself of a seeding in next week’s eight-team, Div. 5 Northern Region playoffs. The Highlanders, with a victory in their final regular season game against the Saxons, would clinch a winning record at 6-4.
Langley, meanwhile, improved to 4-5 following a 24-21 district road win at South Lakes last Friday night. The Saxons were 0-4 at one point but have won four of five games since then. Langley is not likely to qualify for the Div. 6 region playoffs, but a final week win over McLean would give the Saxons a .500 record at 5-5. Indeed, there will be a lot on the line for both teams when McLean and Langley hit the field on Friday night.