Saugus football’s answer: Defense

The public is asking how the Centurions are in the semifinals, and these guys are why

By Cary Osborne
Signal Sports Editor

The word is swagger.

And you feel it from talking to Saugus’ defense.

The Saugus High School that is playing tonight in the CIF-Southern Section Northern Division semifinals against Valencia at Canyon High School.

The Saugus High School, an at-large team in the 16-team playoffs and the fourth-place team in the Foothill League, that you (admit it), didn’t think would be here.

They couldn’t care less if you thought they wouldn’t be here.

“The one thing we’ve proved is a lot of people wrong,” says nose tackle Miguel Sanchez.

It’s because of this defense, in large part, that Saugus has stunned the Northern Division, beating No. 3 seeded Atascadero 34-27 on Nov. 15, then shutting out Bay League No. 2 Mira Costa 13-0 last Friday.

All this coming from team that some picked to finish fifth in the Foothill League behind what is considered the big three of the Foothill League — Valencia, Hart and Canyon.

“People obviously don’t think we’re one of the big three, we haven’t won a Foothill League championship since 2008. But no one else has other than Valencia,” says Saugus middle linebacker Austin Davenport on why the Centurions, a 5-5 team coming into the postseason, were largely doubted prior to the playoffs. “There’s been a saying our defense says to each other and it sums up our season — ‘It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.’ And so that’s what’s kept us going. Even though we play a top three or top-seeded opponent, they don’t want it more than us. When it comes down to it we’re going to fight.”

The Centurions have allowed 18.8 points per game — not staggering until you look deeper into the numbers.

Saugus has held 11 of 12 opponents below its season scoring average this season.

The only team it didn’t hold below its average was Valencia, which beat the Cents 38-24 on Oct. 11.

The Vikings average 35 points per game this year.

“We didn’t get a lot of pressure on the quarterback. We didn’t help out the (defensive backs) that much. We left our DBs in coverage for more than five seconds,” says defensive end Albert Portillo. “This game, this week comes down to us on the defensive line. It’s about pressuring the quarterback. Us three defensive linemen are taking it personal.”

Three is the number for Saugus and Valencia — as both operate out of a 3-4 defense.

Portillo along with opposite end Chase Madrigal have combined for 19.5 sacks this season.

Madrigal leads Saugus with 10.5 sacks this season.

That sort of pressure from the ends and Sanchez’s ability to stop guys up the middle just begins to tell the story of Saugus’ success on defense.

With two linebackers lined up just behind and to the side of the front three, it gives the look of a five-man front, which another Foothill League coach has said makes Saugus extremely difficult to run on.

The Cents’ run stopping-ability has been a major factor for them during the postseason.

Saugus has also been strong in limiting the damage in the passing game.

A major reason for that is the experience the defense has as a hole.

Saugus had a disappointing 2012 — finishing 3-7 and missing the postseason.

The Cents’ turnaround has little to do with changes and more to do with non-changes.

Of the current starters on defense, only three weren’t regulars last season — cornerbacks Michael Parker and Brandon Bailey and lineman Cade Albert.

Linebackers Austin McKinney, Noah Belt, Zach Gragas and Blake Austin (one of the Foothill’s most versatile players) and safeties Steven Kwak and Dakota Taylor, along with Davenport, Sanchez and Portillo all were on the field much of last season as well as this one.

The cohesion, smarts and chemistry (and overused word but one that very much applies to this unit because they all like each other), have helped Saugus turn the page on last season.

Saugus head coach Jason Bornn prides his teams on defense.

He is the team’s defensive coordinator and studies offenses like he’s the one in school.

Therefore, Saugus players have a thick defensive playbook and an understanding that if they don’t know the plays, they don’t play.

“Most of us are returning starters. We had two years to perfect the technique and really work on the fundamentals of it,” says Taylor, a senior. “We know the schemes a lot better this year and everyone loves to play and are flying around doing whatever it takes to help the team.”

The knowledge, the experience, the fight — all reasons why Saugus is here.

The Centurions haven’t defeated Valencia since 2008 — the season they won the Foothill League championship.

It’s league rivals battling each other.

Kids growing up in the same town fighting for bragging rights.

It’s the chance to avenge a loss from earlier in the season.

Apparently, all that means nothing to this Saugus defense.

A win against Valencia would mean this:

“It means we would be able to play next week in the championship game,” says Kwak, a senior. “It doesn’t matter who we have to play this week. … You say the big three. We were in the big 16, then we were in the big eight, now we’re in the big four. We’re trying to get to the big two.”

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