There are several reasons why Columbia has won eight straight games after losing its season-opener, and is on the verge of an outright Patriot Athletic Conference Stripes Division title and a postseason berth.
But one comes quickly to mind for Raiders coach Jason Ward.
“To me, the biggest story is our defense,” said Ward. “While (junior quarterback) Jay (Banyasz) is a great story, our success has hinged on what our defense is able to do. If you look at the standings every Saturday in The Blitz, we’ve given up the least amount of points of any school by at least 20 points.
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“I hesitate to say it’s the best defense I’ve ever coached because I had some great ones (as an assistant) at North Ridgeville, but this has been a swarming, nasty defense that’s really given our guys a lot of confidence. Jay’s a starting free safety on that defense, and part of the reason for that success is that, no matter what happens on offense, he’s on a defense that can cover for it.”
The defense has even come up with a nickname for itself — The Green Swarm.
“We take a lot of pride in playing physical,” said junior inside linebacker Jacob Kleinhenz.
“We like to hit, and it’s not only us two (inside linebackers). We’re a very physical defense. Everyone is there on group tackles, that’s why we call ourselves ‘The Green Swarm.’ We play as a team on defense.”
Banyasz, who took over for his brother, John, this year, agrees with his coach’s assessment.
“Secondary-wise, you don’t try to do too much, but not too little,” said Banyasz, who is tied for the team lead with four interceptions. “When the offense is struggling, we can rely on our defense to bail us out. We make plays on the defensive side of the ball regularly, which has helped us offensively with field position and points.
“The key to the defense is that everyone is responsible for their 1/11th. Coach (Andrew) Custar (the defensive coordinator) does a great job with the scouting reports and gets everyone in the right positions to play their best.”
The defense has allowed a Lorain County-low 101 points this season. It will be relied on heavily during tonight’s clash at Clearview, where a win will earn a Stars Division title and could lead to the first home playoff game in school history.
“That number includes three kickoff returns for touchdowns that our opponents have gotten, along with some scores at the end of games when the starting unit was not in,” Ward said. “They gave up 73 total yards to Fairview last week, and only 24 in the first half to Brooklyn. We also have a plus-19 turnover ratio.”
Foster Tucker, one of the few seniors, has become one of Columbia’s most trusted offensive linemen and linebackers despite never playing football prior to his sophomore year.
“I think it’s been, first of all, because of great coaching from Coach Ward and Coach Custar,” Tucker said. “We had a goal to give up less than 100 points this season, but that’s not something we focused on. Really, our main goal is to go out there and get the win. Our motto for this year was ‘Focus, Fight and Finish,’ something we weren’t able to do in the past.”
The Raiders didn’t finish in Week 1, a 20-14 home loss to Cleveland Central Catholic in which the Ironmen scored a touchdown in the final seconds. It’s the lone blemish on an otherwise fantastic season.
“We knew after that we had to finish,” Tucker said. “We came together from that adversity and learned from it, and it’s been working out for us.”
Kleinhenz said the biggest factor was giving up big plays.
“In Week 1, I thought we played pretty good,” he said. “What killed us were a couple of big plays. We knew no one could consistently drive on us and pound the ball. Why we lost was we couldn’t stop the big plays from happening against Tri-C.
“(Coach) Custar does an amazing job coming up with scouting reports. We know exactly what they’re going to do and who their big players are. We know exactly where they are on the field and we have them contained. It’s all about communication at all times.”
Defensive tackle Dan Loub is third in the county with seven sacks.
Ward singled out Tucker and Kleinhenz for their playmaking and leadership abilities on the defensive side.
“Foster Tucker’s also been a rock for us at left tackle,” Ward said. “He was a third-team All-Ohio tackle last year, and he’s played outstanding for us on both sides of the ball. He’s second on the team in tackles behind Kleinhenz.
“We’ve got a 6-foot-3, 240-pound kid sitting in the middle of defense who plays down hill and is real, real physical. That’s pretty intimidating.”
Ward also credited Banyasz for playing well at two very demanding positions — quarterback and safety.
“As far as a leader and a presence in the huddle, he’s top notch,” Ward said. “You’re not going to find a better young man to lead your squad, that’s for sure. He’s poised, he’s confident and he has us at 8-1. You can’t go wrong with that.”
Banyasz said both units have embraced an ego-free environment.
“We have a big philosophy of ‘Win together,’” he said. “There’s no one that’s the star on this team. Some games, I’ll be running the football, some games Jake will, others I’ll be mostly passing. It just depends on what’s working, and we go with it.”
Kleinhenz said that defense doesn’t feel any burden because the young, unproven offense is still growing.
“It does (add some pressure), but we don’t really like to think about it that way,” he said. “It’s so much fun to be on that side of the ball. We love playing defense right now. We don’t take it as if we have pressure on us. We just love being out there and we love to hit.”
The Raiders consider the Stars title the top goal in tonight’s showdown with Clearview. But they also sit at No. 5 in Division V, Region 18, and would love to move up and earn that first home playoff game.
“I was a freshman on that last 9-1 team that made the playoffs, but it’s different this time around because we’re the ones contributing,” Banyasz said. “But, in order to be the best, you have to beat the best, and right now, Clearview represents the best.
“We’re not really focusing on the playoffs too much. Joe Eitel says we control our own destiny, which means we have to take care of business Friday night against Clearview first and foremost. Our focus is on going 1-0 this week.”
It’s a goal that might be realized because of the chemistry the Raiders have built.
“My class, as juniors, have been together since seventh and eighth grade, and even before that in pee-wee football,” Kleinhenz said. “We went undefeated in middle school, and I think our chemistry as a class group is great.
“That being said, with us having a small senior class, I think we broke down the walls in between classes, and I think that’s why this team is such a special group and why I love playing with these guys.”
Added Banyasz: “We’re a very young team. Some people thought this would be a rebuilding year with only 10 starters returning. I think people overlooked us and we were able to fill the big shoes that were left behind. Now, we’re in position to do something pretty special.”
Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or email@example.com.