Safe to say that the construction of a winning football team usually goes from the inside out, radiating out from the trenches in each direction.
However, in an effort to turn around the program’s recent struggles, the Ottawa Pirates will be leaning on, at least on that side of the ball, its last line of defense, a group of talented, experienced and hungry defensive backs that could be a cornerstone for that switch this fall.
Returning seniors Levi Sheehan and Connor Price are three-year starters at cornerback, and Ryder Miller and Dillan Quatrano both return at safety. They will make up the backfield for an OHS defense that hopes to greatly improve on the 32.4 points per game it allowed last season in the tough Kishwaukee River/Interstate Eight Conference White Division.
Of course, working on the front seven will be a priority for head coach Chad Gross, but he’s feeling confident that his veteran DBs will handle whatever comes their way.
“Defensively we’re doing pretty well this summer, especially in our secondary where we have multiple all-conference kids back there,” said Gross while watching his players during the St. Bede 7-on-7 last week. “Obviously, we’re going to have to set our D-line and linebackers to stop the run, but the secondary is all returners, so they should be ready to compete well … kids that we expect to make the plays when they have the opportunity.”
Both Sheehan and Miller were Times All-Area first-team selections last fall, while Quatrano was a second teamer. Miller, who Gross calls his team’s “Swiss Army knife” because he plays so many positions on both sides of the ball, will mostly be in the secondary or at linebacker, wherever the greatest need is.
The presence of sophomores Julian Alexander, a Times second-team choice at crosstown Marquette Academy as a freshman, and Trenton Averkamp, who also will serve as the back-up to new junior quarterback Colby Mortenson, may just free Miller up to step into the linebacking corps.
There also may be more help coming from a 40-man freshman class that has the head coach optimistic about the future of Pirates football.
“In our conference teams are very balanced,” Gross said. “A lot of them will come out in a spread, there aren’t too many that will come out and just run it every play, so we have to be able to defend the whole field. It’s nice to have the leadership back there, guys that understand how teams want to attack us and just play with confidence back there.
“Things are not new to them, so we expect them to lock down the outside and have our other guys fly around and take the ball away for us.”
Sheehan, who has patterned his game after Sauce Gardner, the University of Cincinnati DB who was drafted a month ago by the New York Jets in the 2022 NFL draft, first stepped into the varsity starting lineup after the second game his freshman year, only one game ahead of Price. The former believes that unit has the tools to lead a substantial improvement in the Pirates defense.
“We’re definitely not a smart group, that’s for sure,” Sheehan joked about himself and his backfield mates. “Really, though, we’re pretty fast and athletic running all over the place. We have a good connection [with Price and Miller] because we’re always together in the same groups, playing in the secondary together and wide receiver together. In fact, the communication between all of us is very good. I think we’re going to improve a lot.”
That will be making up for lost opportunities for many of the Pirates who saw their sophomore seasons ruined by the pandemic.
“In our sophomore year, the COVID season, we didn’t win a game, but I believe seven of the 11 starters on defense were sophomores or freshmen.” Sheehan said. Only two were seniors. Now, with the experience we have with all that time in, our communication will be there, for sure. All that experience, I feel we know what’s going on and what teams want to do, so we should be all over that.
“I like our chances this year. We haven’t made the playoffs in a while but going 2-7 last year and losing games on last-second plays, I think we can come together and make a playoff run.”