Most teams shoot high when setting goals. At Vista Ridge, they aim low. Very low.
As in zero.
And they achieve that goal with impressive regularity.
In 10 games this season, the Wolves have shut out their opponent five times. They’ve surrendered an average of just 8.1 points and that includes the 30 they gave up in their lone loss to Ponderosa on Sept. 28.
“It’s a pride thing with the kids,” Vista Ridge coach Les Johnson said. “Their goal is to put up shutouts and when they really want it, they just hold on to it.”
But when your defensive line averages around 200 pounds and your linebackers come in just under that, pride isn’t nearly enough. Johnson understands that and has geared his defense toward speed and disruption.
“We just come out, play our game and do the best we can to get the offense the ball as quick as possible,” said strong side linebacker Pierre Copeland, who measures at 6-foot-2, 190 pounds. “We have a lot of speed and we try to use that to our advantage.”
Jacob Hawthorne, who at 5-9, 190, mans one of the two inside linebacker spots in the Wolves’ 44 stack defense, leads the team with 10.7 tackles per game with Copeland second at 7.4. Hawthorne said that Vista Ridge compensates for its lack of size by swarming.
“Everyone’s on the ball,” the junior said. “We have an expression, 9-5-9.”
What that means is that the defense wants to have nine players within 5 yards of the ball 90 percent of the time.
Physical speed by itself isn’t adequate to achieve a goal like that. That’s why film study is such an important part of Vista Ridge’s success. The better Johnson’s players know the opposition, the quicker they can respond.
“Our film sessions are so critical because now that we’re anticipating where the offense will be going we can put those guys on the ball as quick as possible,” Johnson said. “We’re going to play hard, we’re going to play fast and we’re going to play smart. That is the strength of the defense.”
The Wolves were in one of those film study sessions on Tuesday as No. 4 seeded Vista Ridge (9-1) prepared for its game against No. 13 seed Cañon City (7-3) on Friday in the first round of the 4A state tournament.
The film study is also where Johnson makes the tweaks that are a constant with his defense. His 44 stack wears many disguises come game day.
“The defense may change depending upon what the offense shows me,” Johnson said. “If I need to send five, I can send five and if I need to send six, I can send six.
“I believe in them, they believe in me and that makes a good combination for a successful program.”
You could say it helps them zero in.