July 26, 2014

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‘Backers to the forefront: Four senior linebackers making sure Avon’s defense continues its dominating ways

Senior starting linebackers, from right to left, Ryan Steinmetz, Alex Habeeb, Mitch Tomlin and Kevin Maloney have been instrumental in Avon going 12-0 and returning to the regional finals for a third straight season.  STEVE MANHEIM/CHRONICLE

Senior starting linebackers, from right to left, Ryan Steinmetz, Alex Habeeb, Mitch Tomlin and Kevin Maloney have been instrumental in Avon going 12-0 and returning to the regional finals for a third straight season. STEVE MANHEIM/CHRONICLE

CLICK HERE FOR LIVE COVERAGE FROM TONIGHT’S GAME

The amount of attention paid to Avon’s defense outside the Eagles locker room is wildly disproportionate to the attention paid to it inside.

So while the Eagles’ D has earned a couple headlines this year — notably, Mitch Tomlin’s opportunistic performance in last Friday’s regional semifinal win over Perrysburg and a lockdown performance against North Ridgeville standout running back Demario McCall — rest assured it gets its due, even if it is overshadowed at times by the offense’s often-gaudy stats.

That credit is well deserved: The Eagles have allowed 169 points this season, including just 21 in two postseason games against two high-powered offenses and quarterbacks. (The other 14 points scored against Avon have come on pick-sixes by opposing defenses.)

And the credit could and should mount if the Eagles win again tonight in the Division II, Region 4 final against Highland. Not only do the Hornets boast multiple offensive skill players capable of doing damage, but with Highland also bringing a lockdown defense to Brunswick, a state Final Four berth could be won by the better defense.

“We just come into practice each day working on and worrying about ourselves, and becoming as good as we can be,” said Ryan Steinmetz, one of four senior starters at linebacker who are also the team’s leading tacklers. “That way, we’re prepared for whatever any of these teams throw at us. We’ve seen a lot so far and we’ll see more on Friday.”

Steinmetz and Alex Habeeb, who start inside, and Kevin Maloney and Tomlin, who start outside in the Eagles’ 3-4 scheme, anchor a defense that in the postseason has locked down multiple-threat QB David Nees from Toledo St. Francis de Sales and did enough to limit Perrysburg backup Trevor Hafner — who replaced starter Gus Dimmerling – a Nees clone — without missing a beat.

After the Knights returned an interception for a touchdown in Week 1, the Eagles forced two straight turnovers — one a fumble recovery by Tomlin — and helped the offense regain its footing in an easy victory. Last week, facing a backup quarterback who only was a backup because Dimmerling was a monster this season, forced three turnovers — including another fumble recovery and interception by Tomlin — and helped the Eagles overcome five turnovers of their own in a 24-21 victory.

“All I’ve done is talk about our defense because we had returners there,” Avon coach Mike Elder said. “Offense sells tickets, it’s sexy. Defense wins championships. Our defense has been good since Day One. We hang our hat on it. Those guys have played exceptionally well, and deserve credit because they’re four great kids, on and off the field. In the weight room, they lead by example.”

Steinmetz has started 25 consecutive games for the Eagles, and Maloney also started as a junior. (They both played outside last season.) Tomlin and Habeeb played plenty as backups last season, and now all four start, as the Eagles were forced to replace Cory Ohradzansky — their leading tackler last season, as a sophomore — after he tore his ACL in Week 3.

Habeeb, meanwhile, returns this week for his first playoff action this season after suffering an MCL injury in Week 10.

It’s a veteran group that has accounted for more than 300 tackles this season, even while playing without key contributors for stretches.

“Our coaches are really good at making sure guys are ready when it is their time to step up,” Steinmetz said. “Everyone embraces that role. Even when people aren’t starters, they’re preparing as if they are and will play.”

It’s also a group that remembers this time last year well: The Eagles, who played in the state final in 2011, lost in the regional final to Toledo Central Catholic a year ago. There was no shame in it, as TCC went on to beat Trotwood-Madison in the championship game.

Still, bet that that loss is playing a part in preparation this week for Highland.

“It’s definitely motivating us,” Maloney said. “At the beginning of this year, I think some people doubted us. Last year, everyone thought we’d be great, and we’ve advanced as far as that team. We’re proud of what we accomplished but we want to get a step past what that team did.”

What Elder likes second most about the team’s recent playoff runs — besides the wins — is the extra practice time and extra experience players gain. And while preparing for Highland’s Bruce Kinsey — who’s run for 14 touchdowns and passed for 18 more — and his favorite target, his brother, Coltin, is no easy task, nerves will not be a factor, especially on a senior-laden defense with a senior-laden linebacking corps.

“At this point, there are no more nerves or concern,” Tomlin said. “We’ve been here. We know what the job is.”

Tomlin took some good-natured ribbing from his linebacker mates for saying that, yeah, maybe the defense doesn’t get enough credit by reporters – just a couple of days after his picture was in this newspaper and his name was in an accompanying headline.

Also taking some ribbing was Habeeb, who attended Highland schools from third through seventh grade. His father brought in a picture of Habeeb, in sixth grade, in a Highland uniform this week, and his teammates have been calling him their Highland spy. A teammate also has been wearing one of his old Highland jerseys in practice.

Habeeb will take the jokes, though, if it means he’s back in the lineup.

“It’s been hard, but I’ve been happy watching them win,” he said. “These guys have been doing great, and I’m just glad to be back.”

Contact Joel Hammond at 329-7135 or hammond_joel@yahoo.com.

TONIGHT

WHO: Avon (12-0) vs. Highland (12-0)
WHAT: Division II regional final
TIME: 7:30
WHERE: Brunswick Auto Mart Stadium
TV/RADIO: STO; WEOL 930-AM, WOBL 1320-AM, WEOL.com