Overlooked defense shines for Girard

It was just a basic preseason scrimmage to most spectators.

Girard decided to challenge itself a little more coming off a regional semifinal appearance in 2017, so the Indians picked up a scrimmage with Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary.

A Girard team with high expectations entering 2018 wanted to see where it stood against one of the state’s perennial powerhouses. Coach Pat Pearson was looking for something specific.

“We’ve been known the last 25 years in Girard for having good offense,” he said, “but we knew to take it to the next level we had to step it up on the defensive side of the ball.”

A certain mentality centered around toughness and unselfishness came along with being better on defense, Pearson said. He started to see a change last year, but the Indians still hadn’t fully embraced the tenacious attitude he was looking for.

“We scrimmaged St. Vincent-St. Mary this summer, and that’s the first time that we did it,” Pearson said. “Those guys really stepped up, and they put their foot in the ground. We had a little smile on our faces as coaches and said, ‘Hey, we have something special here.’ “

The high-powered offense of Girard, led by quarterback Mark Waid, isn’t all that makes the Indians so good.

As the Indians (13-1) prepare to play for the school’s first state championship tonight against Cincinnati Wyoming (14-0), they do so with an overlooked, undervalued defense.

“There are a lot of individual superstars on that side of the ball that don’t get their name said very much, and they don’t care,” Pearson said. “All they care about is whatever it takes to win.”

The three layers of the defense are equally stout.

It starts up front with a line that features size, strength and speed. Senior defensive lineman Jack DelGarbino, a heavyweight state wrestling champion, leads the Indians in tackles (130) and has an incredible 31 tackles for loss. Flanking him is talented senior defensive end Daryl Smith, who has 13 TFLs and four sacks, along with Haeden Gump, a 6-5, 250-pound junior with 12 TFLs, and Anthony Pratt (38 tackles).

Rounding out the front seven are standout linebackers in Jamil Bannister (105 tackles), Marco Donatelli (98 stops, 10 TFLs) and Morgan Clardy (56 tackles).

They stand in front of a deep secondary led by talented corner Terrence Davis, who Pearson believes is one of “best corners in the state.” The 6-3 senior has a team-high five interceptions. On the other side is senior Tyrese Cato, and manning the middle are safeties Nick Malito and Aidan Warga (third on the team with 101 tackles).

Sure, they’ve given up some points in the playoffs against some of the state’s best teams, but they’ve also made key plays at critical moments.

“We always build each other up if we do something bad,” Smith said. “We’re never looking at anything negative. We’re always looking to the positive. If they get a first down, OK, next-play mentality. We’ll get ’em next play.”

They face one of their biggest challenges yet against a Cincinnati Wyoming team that is loaded with talent.

Besides boasting the Division IV All-Ohio Offensive Player of the Year in quarterback Evan Prater, a 6-foot-5, 190-pound junior, Pearson said their average height up front is 6-5 with two all-state receivers and a powerful running back.

The Indians believe they have the recipe to slow Wyoming down.

“Even though he’s that good,” Smith said of Prater, who has 55 combined TDs (26 passing, 29 rushing), “we can adjust, just like we did all the other weeks of the playoffs. If we hold our gaps and stay sound, we can easily hold off this offense. Our defense is built for their offense.”

Like most of the season, most aren’t counting on the defense of Girard to find a way to win the title, and that’s just how the Indians like it.

Discounted, ignored and underestimated all season, Pearson has faith this group will stand out when the lights are the brightest.

“They don’t get all the publicity, they don’t get their names said as much as everybody else, but that is a very special group of kids right there,” he said. “… The challenge has never been any greater for those guys, but I know they’re going to go out and play Girard football — they’re going to leave every ounce of everything they have on that field.

“They’re going to do it together, and they’re going to do it the right way.”