Touted as one of the top high school football units in the country, No. 1 Gilman's defense doesn't unravel easily.
Last week, however, the prospect of a public speaking gig turned into a rare moment of every-man-for-himself.
The week leading up to the Gilman-McDonogh game, one team captain always speaks before the McDonogh student body, while one of the Eagles' captains does the same at Gilman. A few days before the speech, Greyhounds coach Biff Poggi teased each captain in turn that his teammates had elected him to speak. Flabbergasted, Cyrus Jones, Kenneth Goins and Harry McCarthy all balked.
Then came linebacker Devon Porchia.
Poggi laughed as he recalled the conversation: "I said, 'Devon, I'm sorry, but all the other captains threw you under the bus. You're speaking at McDonogh.' And Devon said, 'I thought we all agreed to throw Harry under the bus.'"
Porchia laughed, too, as he explained there was no conspiracy. Poggi was the instigator and no one got "thrown under the bus." Jones, an all-Metro cornerback and Under Armour All-American, ultimately accepted the speaking gig.
While off-field antics may pit one player against another, in uniform that only happens when they're competing on the practice field. They need each other too much in their pursuit of opposing ball carriers and the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship, a quest that continues with Friday's semifinal against No. 9 Archbishop Spalding.
Even with Jones' marquee status — the schools he's considering include Alabama and Auburn — the Greyhounds defense meshes so well together it's often impossible to single out one star. All 11 starters have Division I potential, and more than half have scholarship offers from programs in BCS conferences.
Poggi says this is the best defense he has coached in 15 years at Gilman — and he's coached nine championship teams.
Opponents have managed only four rushing touchdowns against the first-team defense all season. The Greyhounds (8-1) have piled up 57 sacks and forced 26 turnovers — 20 of them interceptions.
"There's no weaknesses, where you can watch the tape and say, 'Let's run at this guy or let's throw to this guy,'" McDonogh coach Dom Damico said. "They're strong everywhere. In order to beat Gilman, you're going to have make plays. It's not going to be because they're not good at certain positions. Your players are going to have step up and outcompete and outfight them for the ball or outrace them to the spot. It's definitely not because of a weak link in their team."
It's not that the Greyhounds don't give up points — they've allowed 18 per game this fall. A Conference teams and national-caliber opponents such as Oscar Smith from Virginia (a 51-27 win) and Good Counsel (a 26-12 loss) are going to score points. But they never come easily.
Perhaps the defining performance for this defense came in the second half of the Oct. 7 win over No. 2 and defending A Conference champion Calvert Hall. The Cardinals led 21-7 at the half, but, without a word from Poggi, Gilman shut them down and the Greyhounds rallied to win 28-21.
The Greyhounds are so big, strong and quick at the point of attack that they almost look like a college team, said Damico, whose squad fell 31-21 to the Eagles on Saturday.
Tackle Brian Gaia, a 6-foot-4, 295-pound senior is headed for Penn State. The other tackle, coach's son Henry Poggi, a 6-4, 255-pound junior, has a host of offers and most recently visited Michigan.
On one end, Kenneth Goins, a 5-11, 210-pound senior deciding between Syracuse and Tulane, sets the tone with his strength and quickness off the line and leads the team with 12 sacks. On the other side, Melvin Keihn, a 6-3, 225-pound sophomore, has 10 sacks.
Linemen don't make many headlines, but these four get all the kudos from their teammates.
"We all know without the D-line, the second line would be nothing," Porchia said. "The D-line is what makes everybody behind them better, because they keep the blocks off of them and make sure they read everything right. It all starts with that D-line."
Junior middle linebacker Micah Kiser calls the plays, leads the team with 80 tackles and has four interceptions. Miles Norris, a junior, and Porchia, a senior headed for Pitt, cause opponents trouble on the outside. In the secondary, Jones and senior Malcolm Powers have combined for 11 interceptions. Along with junior Wyatt Dickerson and freshman Robert Branch or junior Matt Tilley, they handle anything that gets past the front seven.
Although the players look to Kiser on the field, leadership is mostly a shared role. The defense doesn't identify with any one player. It has absorbed the various personalities of the players to form its collective identity.
"All of their personalities lend to the way that defense plays," Calvert Hall coach Donald Davis said. "It's a little bit of Kenny and that fiery, aggressive speed deal. It's a little bit of Kiser and that very, very steady game. And you've got a little bit of Cyrus in that whole big-play, game-changing ability. I'm thoroughly impressed watching those guys."
Goins said, "The personality of this defense is we're kind of like reckless. We just want to hit everything that moves. We just want to beat the guy in front of us basically and get to the ball carrier."
Their motto is "Pursue. Penetrate. Punish."
"That's what coach White always instills in us on defense," Jones said of Greyhounds defensive coordinator and former Baltimore Colts linebacker Stan White. "Just pursue the ball. Get 11 hats to the ball each play and just make them feel it when you tackle them each time. We pride ourselves on being real physical."
Despite their talent, the Greyhounds work hard to improve, and Poggi said teamwork and work ethic make the Greyhounds defense work as well as it does. Someone has always set the example and everyone follows. This year, it's Jones.
"I honestly believe Cyrus Jones is the best player in the country," the coach said. "There may be somebody as good, but there's nobody better. You see how hard he works [in practice]. He runs motions like it's the last motion he's going to run in his life, and he may not even be getting the ball. If he's going to do that, everybody's going to do it. Darius [Jennings] did if before him and Victor [Abiamiri] did it before him and Ambrose [Wooden] did it before him, and that's just the way it's been here forever."
For players such as Jones, Goins, Porchia and the other seniors, only eight days at most remain in their Gilman careers. If they can get past Spalding Friday at 1:30 p.m. at home, the Greyhounds would advance to the first A Conference championship game Nov. 18 at 8 p.m. at Towson University against the winner of the other semifinal between No. 2 Calvert Hall and No. 8 McDonogh.
The Greyhounds look forward to a couple more punishing performances before perhaps the best Gilman defense ever leaves the field for the last time.
"We have a lot of kids who love to compete," Porchia said. "It feels like it's in our blood."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun