The Challengers, who lost eight seniors on defense from a year ago, are on a similar pace to last season's senior-laden defensive crew. Only this unit is doing its work against all 3A and 4A opponents.

The loss in defensive personnel was staggering for the Cascade Christian football team following last season's Class 2A state-championship run.

But instead of rebuilding, the Challengers have reloaded behind the ball-hawking linebacker play of Ben Heidegger and Daniel Kinney.

The Challengers, who lost eight seniors on defense from a year ago, are on a similar pace to last season's senior-laden defensive crew. Only this unit is doing its work against all 3A and 4A opponents.

"This is, by far, our toughest schedule since I've been here," says Cascade Christian offensive and defensive coordinator Brandon Boice, who came on board in 2004. "I was a little concerned with replacing eight starters but I'm happy with where we're at."

At the forefront of the attack, which has yet to allow an opponent 250 yards of total offense, are Heidegger and Kinney.

The two linebackers, along with senior defensive end Justin Duchien, were the lone returning starters on defense.

"I knew we were inexperienced," says Heidegger, whose older brother Josh starred at defensive end a year ago, "and I knew we'd have to rebuild. But I also could see the people filling in and I had complete confidence they'd step up."

Ben Heidegger, a 5-foot-11, 178-pound senior, leads the team in tackles for loss and sacks and is the best blitzer, Boice says.

"I just try to do my job out there and fly around and make plays," says Heidegger, a middle linebacker.

Kinney, a junior, heads up the squad in pass breakups and interceptions at an outside linebacker position.

"We have a lot of athleticism with those kids," says Boice. "They complement each other well."

The defensive numbers speak for themselves.

Cascade Christian, 5-2 and ranked fourth in 3A heading into Friday's home contest against Sunset League opponent Myrtle Point, gives up just 153.3 yards per game on average and 11.7 point a contest. The team is coming off back-to-back shutouts of Bandon and Reedsport.

Through 13 games a year ago the Challengers yielded 11.1 points an outing.

The 5-9, 170-pound Kinney, who is also the Challengers' leading rusher, has been pleasantly surprised.

"I thought it would be a little bit more of a struggle," Kinney admits. "I knew Ben was going to definitely be a defensive leader because he really proved himself last year. But our line was almost completely new."

The offense has sparkled as well, averaging nearly 45 points per game, but the defense is where Cascade Christian wins games.

"Our defensive line has really stepped up," Kinney said. "We had a lot of guys to replace but Ryan Palmer, James Humphries and Matt Bohn ... those guys have been big."

Palmer (6-1, 227, sr.), Humphries (6-2, 295, jr.) and Bohn (6-1, 200, jr.) did not play on the defensive side last year but have managed to control the line of scrimmage while Heidegger, Kinney and fellow linebackers Brandon Grissom (5-10, 159, so.), Cameron Tooker (5-9, 167, so.) and Josh Kirkland (5-7, 159, jr.) fill the gaps.

The secondary, which Boice calls his best over the last four seasons, is a young but talented unit.

The lone setbacks have come against top-notch competition.

Top-ranked and undefeated Gold Beach edged out a 27-22 victory, while Class 4A Henley, which is hovering in second place in the Skyline Conference standings, needed a last-second field goal to take a 23-22 win.

Turnovers were the big bugaboo in both contests for the Challengers.

"We don't turn the ball over and who knows what happens," Boice said.

Cascade Christian will need to be firing on all cylinders against Myrtle Point (6-1 overall, 3-1 Sunset) in a game that will most likely determine the No. 2 seed from the Sunset League.

The Bobcats, whose 14-6 defeat to Coquille last Friday was their first loss of the season, like to spread the field and go to the air with great regularity.

"That'll be a real test for our defense," says Heidegger. "We haven't played a team in a while that likes to throw the ball a lot."

Still, Heidegger feels the best is yet to come for the defensive crew that has tossed shutouts in its last two outings.

"Some people say maybe we're peaking," Heidegger says. "But I've seen our guys play and I don't think we've reached our potential yet. There's definitely more room for improvement. I feel we can be even better."

Reach reporter Kevin Goff at 776-4483, or e-mail kgoff@mailtribune.com