The heart of any successful football team starts with its 'D,' and that goes double for Cascade Christian this season.
The Challengers' defense is allowing an impressive seven points and 130 yards per game, and conveniently has a bevy of Ds — led by seniors Daniel Grissom and Dane Scott — to thank for such success.
Grissom and Scott aren't the leading tacklers for Cascade Christian; that honor goes to sophomore linebacker Dante Olson (25). Or the most physically imposing; junior defensive end David Sellers (6-foot-5, 205 pounds) likely gets that nod. But their efforts have been key to the team's emerging defense.
"These guys are really physical and they do a great job for us with their leadership," says Cascade Christian head coach Jon Gettman, whose team is 5-0.
Grissom leads the defense with six tackles for loss and has 16 tackles overall as an undersized defensive tackle at 5-9 and 190 pounds. Scott calls out the defensive alignments and has 18 tackles. Both also shine on the offense, with Scott at center and Grissom on the line.
"Every play they're sending someone to the second level and he's the guy that gets pounded on and just fights through it," says Gettman of the 5-9, 185-pound Scott. "You can count on him to give you everything he has and he's kind of been the key to our defense."
Grissom's non-stop motor makes him equally as effective and important in the trenches.
"His penetration in the backfield is pretty neat to see," Gettman says of Grissom. "He's only like 190 pounds, which is small for this day as a tackle, but he uses his quickness and he's just as strong as a bull."
While Cascade Christian's offense is prolific and garners most of the attention due to the dynamic efforts of senior Brandon Williams and company, it became clear to Gettman that his team's defense needed to gain just as much of an identity if it was going to reach the program's goal of a Class 3A state title. The Challengers' season has come to an end in the semifinals the past four years.
"It's always said that a championship team is made with defense, so if we have a strong defense, we're going to go a lot farther this year," says Scott, 17.
Gettman says the team's defensive transition came midway through last season when a switch was made to a 4-3 scheme. Under the direction of assistant coach Jerry Burchfiel, Gettman says everything has taken off from there and received a jolt from the current personnel on the field.
"I'm really pleased with how things have gone defensively," says the head coach. "They've done a great job of getting their keys and are really locked and loaded on that and that's made a world of difference for the kids."
"When you look at defense, it comes from toughness and is really the heartbeat of what kind of team you are," adds Gettman. "Certainly we've got things to work on and build on, but we've gotten a great start to it."
Grissom says the real key has been in the understanding of each player's responsibility and willingness to work together and sacrifice for the betterment of the team.
"I think the unity in our team right now is what's carrying us this year," says the 17-year-old Grissom. "I feel like we're really getting down what we want to do as a defense and it's just made a world of difference. We went from a decent defense to one that's much better."
Few players have given as much of themselves to the cause as Grissom, who was asked to move from linebacker to lineman this summer. Whatever hesitation he may have privately held was dismissed when Grissom began to see firsthand the impact he could have in the trenches for the Challengers.
"Down there it's a lot of, 'I've got to beat the guy in front of me,' and he's got a great attitude about it and a great motor," says Gettman. "We needed that penetration inside to collapse the pocket and he's relentless and never gives up."
That team-first attitude spills over to the games, according to Scott.
"He's a huge help to me at linebacker because a lot of times he takes on the blocks and lets me get the tackles," he says.
Senior Trenton Griesen and junior T.J. Alvarez join Grissom and Sellers in holding down the front line of defense and get ample help from senior Jonah Smith and juniors Trace Walker, Aaron Cesaro and Tanner Parker.
While Olson and senior Tim Martin help fill in the gaps at the second level for the Challengers, Grissom says Scott's presence is invaluable to the overall performance by the defense.
"Dane's a good motivator and a good leader," he says. "He takes charge and tells us where to go and makes sure we're all working together out there."
With Williams and Levi Girardot at safety and cornerbacks Clayton Lee and Stephen Joffer in the mix, the Challengers feel they have what it takes to not just slow the opposition but stop it altogether. Grissom says he and his teammates have actually been disappointed that they've only posted one shutout thus far.
"It's really an attitude thing," says Scott. "This year we're playing with a lot more tenacity. In past years the attitude of the defense has been to get out and do your job and that'll be good enough. This year we strive for the next level. We don't want to just beat teams, we want to shut them out and absolutely pound them into the ground and not even give them any hope."
Tonight's opponent offers a considerable challenge to meet that goal, with Lost River boasting a 4-1 record after scoring just over 32 points per game behind its own ground-and-pound attack. The Class 2A Raiders utilize a full-house backfield with two tight ends and try to jam the football down the field, taking to the air only to catch teams by surprise.
"It's going to be a physical game up front and a good test for our defense," says Gettman. "It's probably the toughest test we'll get since Santiam Christian as far as challenging our defense."
And, oddly, that's music to their ears.
"It'll be fun to have a good challenge like this," says Grissom. "We're looking forward to it."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry