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Capo Valley proud of its fast, aggressive 'Dark Side' defense
MISSION VIEJO When Capistrano Valley’s defense breaks its huddle in the CIF-SS Division 5 football final, the players will shout a nickname that sounds like a Star Wars reference but instead describes their intent.
Dark Side on three!
“That’s kind of our thing,” outside linebacker Brock Ricci said. “We’re kind of the bad guys. Offense is the good guys.”
If the Cougars’ defense has its way Saturday, the bad guys will enforce their pad-crunching ways against Calabasas’ swift, good guys in the championship at Capistrano Valley at 7 p.m. The defense’s goal will be to darken offensive production.
That task will be the Cougars’ toughest of the season, according to Capistrano Valley coach Ernie Bucher.
The top-seeded Coyotes’ offense, led by Nebraska committed quarterback Tristan Gebbia and highly-recruited receivers Darnay Holmes and Keyshawn Johnson Jr., averages 45.3 points a game. Johnson, formerly of Mission Viejo High, also has committed to Nebraska.
Calabasas at Capistrano Valley, Saturday, 7 p.m.
In many ways, the challenge from Calabasas (13-0) fits the thrilling, season-long plot for Capistrano Valley (12-1). The second-seeded Cougars have reached their first section final since 1990 in large part because of their defense.
The Dark Side is holding the opposition to an Orange County-low 8.6 points per game. The average is about 2½ points lower than Mater Dei’s defense.
In a 20-14 victory against M.L. King in the semifinals, the Cougars’ defense pitched a shutout because King scored twice on interception returns.
“Our defense is amazing,” Capistrano Valley quarterback Kevin Brown said after the semifinal. “Our defense was able to keep us in this game, like they have all season.”
The so-called bad guys have carved their success by blending experience and brotherhood with a schematic change and clearly defined goals.
Capistrano Valley’s defense enters each game with 10 detail-oriented objectives.
The goals have included holding teams to under 17 points, allowing no points in the fourth quarter, helping the Cougars finish plus-one in the turnover ratio and racking up quarterback hurries.
The defensive players earn gold, Cougar paw stickers for their black helmets for achieving the goals. Heading into the final, the players’ helmets are covered with stickers.
The most points Capistrano Valley has allowed came in its only loss, a 17-10 decision to San Juan Hills on Sept. 9. But even on that night, the Dark Side’s reputation grew.
“They play fast and physical,” San Juan Hills coach Aaron Flowers said. “Aggressive mentality.”
The Cougars’ blend of speed and power surfaces most prominently along its base, four-man front. Junior defensive ends Zach Ritner (6-3, 240) and Nolan Reeve (6-2, 175) create havoc with contrasting styles.
Ritner, who has a team-leading 18 sacks and 29 hurries, is a powerful pass rusher. He has attracted interest from UCLA, Washington and UC Davis.
Reeve, who has 12.5 sacks and 20 hurries, uses speed to pressure the quarterback and chase down ball carriers. The Cougars marveled when he caught speedy Laguna Hills wide out Logan Montgomery earlier this season.
“When we preach, don’t give up on a play, you got to keep going, he did that exactly,” Ricci said of Reeve. “He ran him down for a good 50, 60 yards.”
The Cougars also believe their experience and cohesion have been important factors to the defensive success.
While Capistrano Valley might only start two seniors on defense Saturday, the unit is surprisingly experienced.
Ritner and Reeve are returning starters on the defensive line and junior tackle Carson Bilt saw playing time last season. Sophomore Juan Carlos Saldivar is the lone newcomer to the front.
At linebacker, Ricci excelled as a returning senior starter until suffering a season-ending knee against Ventura in the second round of the playoffs.
The Cougars also returned experience at middle linebacker with Jake Clark, another junior, and moved senior Devin Jenkins to linebacker from safety.
Jenkins dealt with a hand injury much of the season, creating an opportunity for junior Jonathan Leara at linebacker.
In the secondary, junior safeties Justin Burk and Ryan Schurmer each played last season.
Cornerback Rafael Ramos, who made a key interception in the fourth quarter against M.L. King, is the team’s lone significant transfer. The senior from Capistrano Valley Christian spent time on the practice squad last season because of his transfer.
Sophomore Tommy Dickman is the team’s other cornerback.
“We’re a really close group,” Ritner said. “We’re able to come together and work hard.”
The Dark Side’s starters wear black T-shirts with the inscription Capo VI. The defense’s motto for each play is “six seconds of hell.”
But the group’s bond was tested with the loss of Ricci.
“When he went down, it just felt like we lost a brother,” Reeve said. “We played the whole season with him. We played preseason, we lifted with him. We did everything as a team with him. … But we knew he wouldn’t want us to quit.”
Ricci still makes an impact. He gave an inspiring speech at halftime last week with the Cougars trailing, 14-0. The influence also comes from his father, Dave, in his fourth season as Capistrano Valley’s defensive coordinator.
Coach Ricci switched the Cougars’ defense to the Tampa 2 this fall after an offseason mentorship with Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Marinelli, a former assistant with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Marinelli is a Ricci family friend.
The Tampa 2 defense rushes four players and employs seven others in coverage, including a linebacker who drops to safety. The scheme could be critical against Calabasas’ spread attack.
“The whole emphasis on the defense has been to be simple and whatever we do, we do it extremely well and do it extremely fast,” Dave Ricci said. “The key for us is fast and angry.”
If things get dark for the opposing offense, that’s perfect.
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