Folks who follow Bay Rivers District football closely became familiar with Grafton High's Joe Cibrin-to-Dylan Stallings pass-catch duo months ago. Less heralded but perhaps more key to the Clippers first playoff appearance in five years is the defense.
The Clippers (8-2) enter their Region I Division 4 playoff game against Courtland (6-4) on Saturday at Bailey Field having allowed only 11.3 points per district contest, second to Poquoson's 5.3. Even some of the unit's stars are a little surprised.
"We thought we could be high scoring," said Grafton linebacker and defensive captain Robbie Hiser said. "But our defense playing so well is what made us think we could compete in the district."
The light turned on, Hiser said, when the Clippers lost only 7-0 to Poquoson in September on a late touchdown. Poquoson has averaged 39 points in its other eight district games.
"Poquoson was tough, with an offensive line that's really good and good backs," Hiser said. "That's why they're undefeated in the district.
"We took a lot of pride in holding them to seven points."
Prior to that, Grafton's defense was something of a question mark. Six starters returned from last season's 4-6 team, led by super-aggressive defensive end Stallings, ball-hawking linebacker Hiser and run-stopping defensive tackle Peter Park.
But there were lots of unknowns, particularly in the secondary, where '09 junior varsity players — Jesse Santiago, Colby Underwood and Cole Swartwood — joined Marcus Spearman, who started last season as a freshman. The group has fared well despite its lack of experience.
"We're able to do a lot of blitzing and stunting with our linebackers, because the secondary has been able to handle man-to-man coverage," Clippers defensive coordinator Tommy Bayse said. "Marcus Spearman has been our shutdown corner, the guy we put on (Lafayette's) Thomas Smith and (Bruton's) De'Arius Olvis.
"The others are good athletes. Our defensive backs coach, Melvin Dillard, has done a good job developing them."
Hiser has been the standout of a linebacker corps in which Aaron Wallace and Taylor Collins also have played well. Bayse says Hiser's football smarts and toughness have been the keys to his effectiveness.
"He's very knowledgeable about the game," Bayse said. "He and Taylor Collins are the ones who get the defensive linemen in place if we have to change from a four-man to a five-man or six man front.
"Robbie sprained his ankle early in the season, then wouldn't come out of the game against Lafayette (a big 35-31 win for the Clippers) even though he dislocated his finger and couldn't ball his fist. He's a warrior."
Caleb Harris and Chris Goens have performed capably on the defensive line in their first season as varsity starters. The anchors have been Stallings, a major college recruit, and Park, both of whom earned first-team all-district honors.
"Park almost never comes out of the game," Bayse said of the two-way starter. "Dylan Stallings gets double-team and sometimes triple-team blocking, which allows our linebackers to go unblocked.
"But Dylan still pressures quarterbacks and makes tackles against the run."
It was no accident that the Clippers struggled defensively in the loss at Smithfield, where Stallings watched from the sideline with a stress fracture to his foot. Lafayette moved the ball consistently on the Clippers the next week, but Bayse said he can accept that because: "Lafayette is that good. I think they're the best offense in the district."
But the defense rebounded in the 21-17 win last week over York to clinch the playoff berth under first-year coach Jared Van Acker. The Clippers trailed 10-6 at halftime, but allowed only 88 yards in the second half and made a late defensive stop in their own territory to clinch the victory.
"The pressure of having to win to get into the playoffs raised our desire to play better," Park said. "We take a lot of pride in the defense.
"We've buckled up and buckled down on whatever comes at us."