Just moments after his team had squeaked past Maine-Endwell, 6-0, in the Carrier Dome last Saturday to reach the Class B final of the state high school football playoffs, Lackawanna coach Bill Moore said a mouthful.
"You don't get this far against this level of competition without playing outstanding defense," he said.
While both Lackawanna and Class D finalist Maple Grove boast powerful offensive attacks that feature talented and explosive performers, they have their defenses to thank for getting them to this point in the season.
Maple Grove (12-0) plays Lake George (8-4) of Section II for the D title at 10 a.m. Friday at the Carrier Dome, where Lackawanna will try to defend its B crown against Harrison (9-2) of Section I at noon on Sunday.
"Your defense and offense work together because how well your defense plays sets up what plays you can call on offense," Moore said. "If you keep the other team pinned down in its end of the field and you're always getting possession out around midfield, you can open things up more."
The leader of the Lackawanna defense is senior end Doug Harding. At 6-foot-2 and 206 pounds, he has surprising quickness rushing from the outside to drive opposing linemen and quarterbacks crazy. He has a mean streak, too.
"It's fun to play defense," said Harding, who also plays fullback. "You get to chase the guy with the ball and make things happen. It's more fun to hit than get hit."
Harding came up with the defensive play of the semifinal for the Steelers when he sacked Maine-Endwell quarterback Ryan Carney on fourth and 13 from Lackawanna's 28 with just six seconds left and Lackawanna clinging to its 6-0 lead.
"If there was somebody who was going to get the quarterback on that last play," Moore said, "I would have bet my life on Harding. He's just that type of kid. He's always making the big plays."
Harding finished with a team-high 12 tackles and two sacks.
Other prime contributors defensively for the Steelers are Robert Sireika on the other end, a rangy 6-4, 208-pound pass rusher, Joe West at nose tackle and hard-hitting Laurent Swanson at linebacker. West, one of the fastest players in the area, is only 5-11 and 176 pounds, but his quickness off the snap helps him penetrate into the backfield in the blink of an eye.
Not to be overlooked is senior linebacker Dave Feeney, who had 11 tackles against Maine-Endwell.
Even Wade Turner got into the act. The star senior running back, who doesn't see a lot of action on defense, came free on a safety blitz in the fourth quarter and hurried Carney into a fourth-down incompletion.
"We're aggressive defensively, there's no doubt about that," Moore said. "We try to come after you and we get a lot of helmets on the ball. Our goal is to get our linebackers into the gaps untouched, so they can make plays in the backfield."
The Steelers also got some good news on the offensive front Sunday when doctors determined 6-7, 295-pound senior lineman Rich Sikorski would be able to play against Harrison. Sikorski had left the win over Maine-Endwell in the first quarter with what was feared to be a fractured elbow, but it turned out to be a bruise.
Maple Grove, meanwhile, is known as Randall Secky's team. The 6-5, 195-pound junior quarterback is the Red Dragons' headliner, but defense is also a key component of Maple Grove's success.
"Our defense never gets the recognition it deserves," Maple Grove coach Curt Fischer said after his team beat Dolgeville, 20-19, last Saturday. "But that's understandable because of the weapons we have on offense.
"But without some huge efforts we got on defense, we wouldn't be coming back to the Dome."
The defense saved the day for the Dragons after Secky had given his team its 20-19 lead on a 4-yard run early in the fourth quarter.
A big hit by senior linebacker Jarod Masci on Dolgeville quarterback Bruce Radley on a fourth-down run forced the Devils to turn the ball over at the Red Dragons' 38-yard line with about seven minutes left in the game.
Dolgeville got the ball back moments later on an interception and appeared to be driving toward a winning touchdown when the Maple Grove defense delivered again.
Facing a fourth-and-2 from the Maple Grove 25, Steve Serow took a pitchout from Radley and tried to race around the left end. Junior defensive end Greg Eckwahl chased him down and 6-2, 240-pound senior lineman Dan Raynor delivered a crushing tackle for a 3-yard loss with less than 50 seconds left in the game.
"Our defense has done a great job all season, we really play well together," said Masci, who began his career as an eighth-grader. "We take a lot of pride in being a hard-hitting defense. We try to swarm to the ball and make things happen."
Masci led the Dragons in tackles against Dolgeville with 12 and linebacker John Vogan added 11. Eckwahl made only three tackles, but all three were for losses.
Senior J.J. Welling, the Dragons' top running back, laid some ferocious hits on Dolgeville ball-carriers from his linebacker spot.
"I'll tell you, they hit you and they hit you hard," Dolgeville coach Jerry Walczak said of the Maple Grove defense. "We had some plays where we thought we had them blocked pretty well and they still managed to make the tackles.
"It might be a cliche, but defense really does win championships."
LACKAWANNA SEASON REVIEW
Lackawanna 34.... Olean 0
Lackawanna 30.... Springville 29 (OT)
Lackawanna 26.... Maryvale 22
Lackawanna 66.... Fredonia 22
Lackawanna 22.... Canisius 7
Lackawanna 34.... Dunkirk 0
Lackawanna 40.... Iroquois 21
Lackawanna 26.... S'thwestern 0
Lackawanna 56.... Albion 14
Lackawanna 22.... Tonawanda 14
Lackawanna 42.... Hornell 22
Lackawanna 6.... Maine-Endwell 0
Points for: 404 Points against: 151
MAPLE GROVE SEASON REVIEW
Maple Grove 48.... Cattaraugus 6
Maple Grove 21.... Randolph 15
Maple Grove 28.... Frewsburg 6
Maple Grove 33.... Westfield 9
Maple Grove 21.... Pine Valley 0
Maple Grove 40.... Franklinville 6
Maple Grove 34.... Panama 6
Maple Grove 35.... Brocton 8
Maple Grove 21.... Randolph 20 (OT)
Maple Grove 19.... Pine Valley 13 (OT)
Maple Grove 35.... Red Jacket 20
Maple Grove 20.... Dolgeville 19
Points for: 355. Points against: 128