It wasn't until late September before Dan Bradley witnessed a noticeable difference in his Sto-Rox football team.
Two weeks after the Vikings suffered a 35-34 loss against Big Seven Conference opponent Neshannock on Sept. 14, Bradley went back to view video footage from that game as well as his team's 35-31 non-conference victory against Northgate on Sept. 28.
"When we sat down and watched tape of those two games, we saw that we weren't playing inspired defense," the second-year coach said. "We were lackluster and not disciplined. There were breakdowns and it wasn't because of ability; it was because of effort.
"Once we were able to point that out to our guys, everyone became accountable and took it upon themselves to get better. We then started playing as an inspired collective group."
That moment proved to be a crucial turning point in the season for Sto-Rox (10-1), which cruised through the rest of the regular season and into the Class A playoffs.
"Coming into the season, we returned a good core of guys who started or saw some time last season," Bradley said. "But we also had just as many players who weren't on team, either. That mix had to gel together.
"At Week 5, we all came together and really started to play as a team, especially on defense. We began playing the way we needed to play."
The No.2-seeded Vikings head into the semifinals and will meet No. 6 North Catholic (9-2) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Dormont Stadium.
"To advance far into the playoffs you need a great offense that can score a lot against people, but you also need a defense to slow people down," Bradley said. "We've made remarkable strides in that area."
Sto-Rox has won eight games in a row since losing to Neshannock and closed out their regular season with three shutouts against Western Beaver, Laurel and Rochester. The Vikings have only given up 15 points in its two playoff games against Carmichaels and Union.
"Offensively, we've been sound," Bradley said. "We have guys who have grasped what we're trying to do. Our defense is giving our guys on offense an opportunity to score. The better you play on defense, the more opportunities you give your offense.
"That all sounds simple and can be redundant, but when you control possession of the ball and have that [defensive] mindset, you can force teams into a position where it's nearly impossible to play from behind.
"We've seen that where we jump on a team, our defense holds them back and takes them completely out of their element."
On the defensive line, Sto-Rox has been led by nose tackle Jason Rippole, his brother, Jessie Rippole, and Yusef Chandler. Bradley has relied on inside linebackers Marcus Jackson and Elisha Bonner, and outside linebackers Brendan Blair and Deion Redmon. Cornerbacks Lenny Williams, Ben Shackelford and Craig Johnson as well as free safety Javelle Kirkland and safety Jaron Allen round out the list of those who have started and/or contributed on the defensive side.
According to Bradley, Redmon paces the unit in most defensive statistics and has scored two defensive touchdowns on fumble recoveries this season.
"All the way around, we're playing good defense," Bradley said. "We're stopping the run, getting off the field on third down and limiting third- and fourth-down conversions.
"We're all about playing hard, physical defense. We know we have to be disciplined and let our offense do their thing."
Last year, Sto-Rox steamrolled through the regular season and past three playoff opponents before meeting mighty Clairton in the WPIAL championship game. The Bears, however, handed the Vikings their only loss of the season with a 42-6 decision.
"Back during the summer the WPIAL playoffs seemed so far away, but our goal all along has been to get back to Heinz Field," Bradley said. "We still talk about the Clairton game. We want to reach their level of winning consistently. That's been our goal since the very start.
"But before we can reach that goal we need to focus on this week's goal, and that goal is to beat North Catholic."
SOME HIT SINGLES
• Game: Sto-Rox (10-1) vs. North Catholic (9-2).
• When: 7:30 p.m. Friday.
• Where: Dormont Stadium.
• Skinny: The Vikings, the No. 2 seed, face the No. 6 Trojans in an elimination game.hsfootball