The team that plays its home games at Stone Field in North Park faced some (Sto-)Rox and a (Tussey) Mountain the past two games, but even those opponents were no match for a defense that resembles a brick wall.
Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic is having its best season in school history. Two weeks ago, the Trojans won their first WPIAL championship. Last week, they won their first PIAA playoff game.
Next on the to-do list is reaching the state championship game for the first time. The Trojans (14-0) can do that with a victory against District 9 champion Clarion (14-0) in a PIAA Class A semifinal tonight at DuBois High School. The winner will face either Old Forge or Steelton-Highspire in next Friday's title game at Hersheypark Stadium.
A defense that opposing offenses find it hard to gain yards against, let alone score points on, has fueled North Catholic's semifinal trip. The group was solid in the regular season, giving up more than 14 points just twice, but it's in the postseason where it has truly shined.
The Trojans have given up only 28 points in five postseason games, holding four of their foes to seven points or fewer.
"I think we've been playing pretty consistent," North Catholic coach Bob Ravenstahl said. "We've been playing the same defense all year and every game we have gained more experience."
What the Trojans have done the past two weeks has been particularly impressive.
First, they topped No. 1 seed Sto-Rox, 14-0, in the WPIAL championship game. Sto-Rox had been averaging 43 points per game and had not been shut out in more than eight years. North Catholic held Sto-Rox to 222 yards -- including 19 yards rushing on 21 carries -- forced three turnovers and kept WPIAL all-time passing leader Lenny Williams in check.
"If someone would have told me before the game we would do that, I would have said it wasn't possible," Ravenstahl said.
North Catholic followed one outstanding effort with another, beating District 5 champion Tussey Mountain, 48-7, in the PIAA quarterfinals. The Trojans forced four turnovers and limited Tussey Mountain to 217 yards, with 66 of those yards coming on a first-quarter touchdown run.
North Catholic defensive coordinator Dan Sefick employs a 5-2 defense, and it's that "5" that has played the starring role in shutting down opponents' run games and setting the table for the linebackers and secondary to make plays. The defensive line consists of senior defensive tackles Ryan Long and Jarred Fragapane, senior defensive end Ron Meder, sophomore defensive end Thadeus Benson and junior nose guard Nick Nyman.
"I'd say our defensive line is the catalyst in both shutting down the run and slowing down the quarterback," Ravenstahl said.
Seniors Josh Churchin and Mike Blackwell are the starting linebackers. Juniors P.J. Fulmore, Brennan Sefick and Darian Mercurio have shared the cornerback duties, while senior Ryan Kirby and junior Timon Gribbin are the safeties.
Also playing a role in the success of the defense is an excellent rushing attack. Fulmore, Jerome Turner and Mario Latronica keep the chains moving with their running ability, giving the defense time to rest.
North Catholic will try to use that same recipe against Clarion, which also won a PIAA playoff game for the first time last week, 35-20, against Lakeview. It was the first time Clarion was challenged this season, as the Bobcats won each of their first 13 games by at least 35 points.
Fullback Damien Slike (1,869) and running back Ian Corbett (1,247) have combined to rush for more than 3,000 yards, and quarterback John Katis has passed for more than 2,000 yards.
"They're impressive," Ravenstahl said. "Any time you play an undefeated team, you've got to take them seriously."