Central Catholic calls its Chain Gang the brotherhood within a brotherhood, one connected through and strengthened by its links.
The club’s membership grows with every great defensive performance, so it’s telling that 17 Vikings had links by the WPIAL semifinals.
Defense long has served as Central’s calling card, but the Vikings had relied upon theirs more than any team remaining in the WPIAL playoffs.
The Central defense delivered five shutouts, including a 28-0 victory over perennial power Woodland Hills last week, and held three other opponents to seven points.
Entering Friday’s Class AAAA semifinal against Penn-Trafford, Central had accounted for six defensive touchdowns — four by interception and two by fumble recovery — and scored seven times on punt returns.
Given that the Vikings don’t have a 1,000-yard rusher, passer or receiver, it begged these questions:
In this era of high-scoring, pass-oriented offenses, does defense still win championships? Can Central’s defense carry it to a WPIAL title?
“That’s one of the axioms of championship football,” Central coach Terry Totten said. “You’ve got to play good defense, should be able to run the ball and can tilt the field with your special teams.
“We take a lot of pride in our defense around here. We’ve thrown some shutouts, scored some touchdowns and, hopefully, given our offense some good field position, so it’s been fun to watch this group come together.”
Especially after how it came apart against Pine-Richland.
For Central’s defensive dominance this season — it led Class AAAA in scoring defense at 8.5 points allowed per game — the Vikings had an epic meltdown in a 48-28 loss to Pine-Richland in Week 8.
Central allowed only 45 points in its other 10 games, which is why senior linebacker Bryan Glover called the Pine-Richland score “more or less an anomaly.”
“I don’t feel like that was our defense that night,” Glover said. “If we get a shot at them for a Part II, it will be a different game.”
That required Central to stop another explosive offense in Penn-Trafford, which was averaging 40.4 points per game.
The Vikings knew these weren’t the same Warriors they beat 49-10 in the semifinals last year. They also had dealt with injuries at running back and receiver this season.
Which is why Totten stresses that the next guy wearing horns on his helmet has to be ready to play.
“We definitely pride ourselves on getting better and making sure we can put the team on our back whenever we’re asked,” Glover said. “We definitely feel that defense carries the team. We’re trying to keep that tradition going.”
There is talent to do it.
Totten said Harvard recruit Richie Ryan has been “unblockable” on the defensive line and called Glover’s play against Woodland Hills “nothing shy of incredible.”
Defensive coordinator David Fleming raved about C.J. Thorpe “destroying people” up front and Division I prospects Johnny Petrishen (four punt returns for touchdowns) and Damar Hamlin (two pick-sixes) starring in the secondary.
Mostly, Fleming is impressed with how the Vikings answered the Pine-Richland loss, with a 55-14 victory at Butler, by beating Norwin, 42-7, in the WPIAL first round and handing Woodland Hills its first shutout since 2003.
“I think we can win with our defense,” Fleming said. “It all starts with us.
“Sometimes, you need things to happen to you to realize what you have to get back to. I’m proud of our kids for responding. This team has shown a resolve that is to be commended.”
Central should commend Hamlin and Petrishen for scoring on offense. Each had two touchdowns in the 52-34 victory over Penn-Trafford.
Fleming has another number in mind. He wants “another 48” with Pine-Richland.
Not points, mind you.
Another 48 minutes.
The Vikings will get that chance next Friday in the WPIAL final at Heinz Field.
The Chain Gang knows that it’s only as strong as its weakest link.