Notre Dame Prep football fields young defensive unit, sees growth

The Notre Dame Prep defense swarms the Sunnyslope ball carrier during the Saints’ 41-27 win Aug. 24. (Photo Courtesy of Mike Harvey/Peak Image Photo)

In large part, this year’s Notre Dame Preparatory football team features a plethora of new faces but nowhere is that more true than the Saints’ defense.

The Saints lost their top 13 tacklers to graduation and the majority of athletes playing defense this year have late-game or junior varsity experience. For example, NDP’s leading tackler through two games is junior Brock Locnikar, but as a sophomore, he tallied three total tackles in one game played.

This grand renovation of defense has led to growing pains, lessons learned and a new phase of Saints making a name for themselves on defense. So far, the NDP defense has helped the team win but has allowed 19.7 points per game through the first three contests and posted a 47-0 shutout Friday, Aug. 31 against Gilbert High School.

With so many guys new to varsity, Locnikar said what’s surprised him has been the size and how hard opposing varsity players can hit.

“A lot of these varsity teams have a lot of big, strong kids,” he said. “A lot of times people will get hit hard and won’t know how to recover from that and that’s really been, as a team, to respond to that has been the hardest thing.”

While some players have been dealing with the increase in athleticism and stature playing varsity brings, NDP Head Coach George Prelock looks at communication as an area his young team struggles.

He said it’s funny that a generation that spends so much time communicating on social media and their phones struggles to make sure everyone knows their field positioning and their assignments.

“I don’t know if I’ve got to get their phones out there sometimes and get them to text each other or what,” Coach Prelock said with a laugh. “When it comes down to it, just communicating on the field. It’s not a secret what we’re trying to do on defense so talk to one another and communicate who has who.”

Given these challenges, Coach Prelock has seen the young unit make strides in improvement. During the team’s Friday, Aug. 24 come-from-behind win 41-27 over Sunnyslope High School the Saints trailed 27-13 during the third quarter but the defense held the Vikings scoreless for the rest of the game.

Notre Dame Prep senior James Garrison stretches to defend against a pass during the Saints’ 41-27 win Aug. 24. (Photo Courtesy of Mike Harvey/Peak Image Photo)

Coach Prelock said the defense made the Vikings struggle to get first downs, which set up the team’s offense.

While Notre Dame Prep’s defense does feature mostly newcomers, Coach Prelock said several guys do have past experience including seniors James Garrison and Blake McKeon. He also credited Locnikar, senior Gage Knorra and senior Josh Calvin with stepping into leadership roles.

There have also been several players who had offensive experience from last year’s deep playoff push including Grant Boyer — an offensive lineman who played throughout the 2017 playoffs after an injury to Garrett Zimmerman — junior Cade Bennett and senior Cale Gregory.

Though it’s early in the season, Coach Prelock said he’s been impressed with how resilient his young defense has been in not letting hardships and challenges get the best of them.

“I’m blessed with a bunch of kids who love each other and they really want to play for one another,” he said. “They’ve worked hard and they’ve held themselves accountable. They’ve gotten better because of that.”

One unique aspect to this year’s defense is all new defenders are in the same boat and learning together. Locnikar said this has helped him and others in making the adjustment to the first team.

It’s only been two weeks since this new squad has taken the field but Locnikar said it’s been a big learning experience for him both as a player and a unit.

“In this short amount of time, I’ve learned if our defense is able to smack the other team in the mouth before they can smack us in the mouth, we can achieve victory and do everything we’re able to do,” he said.

News Services Reporter Josh Martinez can be contacted at jmartinez@newszap.com or at 623-445-2738

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