Defense wins championships, or so the old saying goes.
For the No. 5 West Hancock Eagles, it seems, nearly everything leads that way.
The Eagles get a lot of attention for their offense, and rightfully so.
This season, the Eagles rank third in the state and first in Class A with 3,014 rushing yards, with fullback Cole Kelly leading Class A in rushing touchdowns and rushing yards, with 30 and 1,521.
But the Eagles’ defense, made up of many of the same players as the heralded offense, has dominated the competition too. Through nine games, the West Hancock defense leads Class A with seven defensive touchdowns and five interceptions returned for scores, and ranks third in Class A with 81 tackles for loss this season.
In Friday night’s 57-14 playoff win over Madrid, the Eagles walloped the Tigers in every aspect of the game. The Eagles scored 22 points in the first quarter and 21 in the second thanks to two rushing touchdowns, a blocked punt, and a fumble recovery by Cole Kelly, along with a rushing touchdown by Matthew Francis. At the same time, the Eagles held the Tigers to 30 yards of total offense in the first half.
Madrid managed only one first down in the first half against the Eagles, and trailed at halftime, 43-0. West Hancock made it 50-0 in the third quarter when sophomore Rylan Barnes returned an interception 22 yards for a touchdown, and got their final touchdown in the fourth quarter on an 80-yard kick return from junior Braden Walk.
Special teams? Checkmate.
Senior Chase Kronemann was a force on defense for the Eagles, with 11 tackles and an interception. The Eagles finished with 41 total tackles, and six tackles for loss. West Hancock allowed eight total first downs to the Tigers, with four happening in the fourth quarter, when the win was essentially sealed.
The Tigers scored a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter, one rushing and one passing, to avoid the shutout.
“Our guys are ready to play," West Hancock head coach Mark Sanger said. "They're excited. With this year, you never know when your last game at home or your last game is going to be, and our seniors have taken that to heart. They led our team, and our guys played well. It was a fun game for them."
The win was the eighth straight for the Eagles, and was the seventh consecutive time they have beaten an opponent by at least 28 points. The Eagles have allowed only one opponent, Alta-Aurelia, to score more than 14 points.
Sanger pointed to the Eagles’ front four defensive line, made up of Kelly, along with fellow seniors Ben Martinez, Tanner Thompson, and Justin Ausborne, as the heart and soul of a defense that has battered opposing offenses all season long.
“Our front four have been the leaders of our defense all year," Sanger said. "We have a great crew of linebackers behind them too, and I could just name the whole defense if you want me to."
On Friday, sophomore Brighton Kudej filled in for Martinez, showing that even with the Eagles not at full strength, their depth allows the unit to thrive.
“If we can control the line of scrimmage, it’s hard to lose games,” Thompson said. “Our defense leads to a lot. We score a lot of points on defense. Our defense, when we can pin them down there and get a good punt, it leads to great offense. Our defense is why we’re so successful. It just gets the game going so much, and we can control it.”
The team's 15 interceptions ranks second in Class A. The Eagles had two picks against the Tigers, with one each from Barnes and Kronemann.
With strong playmakers on the line, linebacker and in the secondary, there isn’t a definitive defensive star for the Eagles. Still though, it all adds up to victory after victory.
"We've got really good defensive backs and good safeties," Kelly said. "They do their job, they get interceptions, and then the d-line. I think the defense as a whole is the star."
With the win, West Hancock improved to 8-1 on the season. The Eagles rushed for 328 total yards against Madrid, with both Kelly and Francis rushing for 100 yards or more.
The Eagles will host Hartley-Melvin-Sanborn next Friday in the third round of the postseason.
The Hawks (7-2) have won six consecutive games and beat Gehlen Catholic on Friday, 38-6.
"It's playoff time," Sanger said. "You've got to have a good week of practice every week. There is no givens. You've got to take care of business."
Shane Lantz covers sports for the Globe Gazette. You can reach him at Shane.Lantz@GlobeGazette.com, or by phone at 641-421-0526. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneMLantz.