It took a few weeks, and a pair of tough losses, for Westminster’s football team to solidify how it wanted to set the tone for the 2019 season.
Changes were put in place by longtime defensive coordinator A.D. Potts before first-year head coach Chris Bassler took over the program at the end of March. Bassler put a few adjustments of his own into the team’s offensive and defensive schemes, combined with what Potts had already set, and the Owls started to take flight.
The Owls (9-2) have not lost since dropping their first two games of the season, and much of that can be attributed to a defense led by junior Erick Stranko and seniors Ethan Zepp, Matt Annulis, Haden Hoff, Jack Conrad and Tre Price.
“If you look at how we’ve played defensively, schematically from the first game to the last, we’ve changed several times throughout the year,” Bassler said. “We’re just trying to take advantage of who is healthy and what our matchups were and just trying to put our guys in the best position to play.”
Six Owls have 40 or more tackles on defense, and the team has 12 interceptions. Senior defensive back Corey Birdow boasts four of those picks, the most in the county.
Stranko leads the team with 105 tackles, Zepp has 98 tackles and two interceptions, Annulis has 66.5 tackles, and Hoff has compiled 50.5. Annulis and Hoff each have one pick for the Owls.
Conrad leads the team with three sacks and has 53 tackles and Price, a two-way standout, has 40 tackles.
The defense, which tossed three shutouts in a row during the season, is allowing 17.7 points per game. And that includes a 42-20 loss to South River in the season opener, and a 31-0 setback against Linganore.
“Our first game was by far the worst defensive game we had as a team,” Conrad said. “We had no identity yet and didn’t know what we were doing. Against Linganore, we had one of our better defensive games and after that we just kept building on ourselves and kept getting better.”
The Owls registered three straight shutouts against county foes Manchester Valley, Francis Scott Key and Century by a combined 113-0, and Conrad and Zepp agreed that these performances helped the team emerge as one of the top defensive units in the county.
The Owls shut out Manchester Valley 40-0 on Oct. 4 to end the Mavericks’ four-game win streak. Hoff forced a fumble and Stranko recovered it on Man Valley’s first drive of the night and Stranko responded with a 41-yard rushing touchdown three plays later.
“Not only can we shut teams out, but we can do it efficiently,” Zepp said.
Liberty hosted Westminster in a battle for the Carroll County Athletic League title Oct. 25, and the contest needed overtime to determine a winner. Bassler said one of his team’s most memorable moments on defense this fall was junior linebacker Colby Cotoia’s tackle of Lions quarterback Nate Kent on third down in OT to force the Lions to kick a field goal.
Westminster’s Nate Mattingly punched in a touchdown three plays later to secure the victory 34-31.
“I know the defense gave up some yards in that game but we got three big stops, two in regulation,” Bassler said. “Then that in overtime, that really propelled us to victory and to the championship.”
Westminster went on to rout city rival Winters Mill 41-14 to close out the regular season, and defeated playoff opponents Long Reach and Marriotts Ridge to earn a spot in the state quarterfinals. The Owls travel to Mervo for a Class 3A matchup Friday at 7 p.m.
“We’re finally starting to click and play together as a group,” Zepp said. “Of course, we’ve all been playing together for years but we’re getting used to some of the new defensive stuff with the right personnel.”