Improving Columbia defense faces big test vs. La Salle

Section: Sports,  Page: B1

Date: Friday, September 16, 2011

EAST GREENBUSH -- The last game the Shaker High football team won during the 2010 season was a 47-6 pasting of Columbia, a setback that dropped the Blue Devils to 0-6.

The two teams met again to open the 2011 season and, even though Columbia lost, the Blue Devils learned plenty about themselves.

"We felt after that game that we can run with anyone," Columbia junior wide receiver/defensive back A.J. Maney said.

Columbia dropped a 32-28 verdict at Shaker, a contest the Blue Devils led deep into the fourth quarter. First-year coach Craig Cavotta and his players aren't seeking moral victories. They just want victories.

Last week, the Blue Devils allowed Niskayuna to drive for a touchdown with its opening possession, but then kept the Silver Warriors out of the end zone the rest of the way in a 12-6 victory in Liberty Division play.

Columbia put immense pressure on Niskayuna senior quarterback Rob Singleton all evening, sacking him 10 times -- including five by El Shaddai Gilmore-VanHoesen.

"We took a lot from the first week. We gave up a lot of big plays. They were the difference of the game," Cavotta said. "We couldn't blink in Week 2. (Singleton) threw for 417 yards. We put in a different defensive scheme and the kids were able to settle down after the first drive."

Defense is going to be vital for the Blue Devils once again if they are to secure their first playoff berth since 2008 and challenge for the school's first winning season since a 5-4 mark in 2003.

Friday night in East Greenbush, Columbia (1-1, 1-1) plays host to La Salle (1-1, 0-0) in a key Liberty Division contest.

"This is huge game. Honestly, it is the biggest of the year," Columbia senior running back/linebacker Pat Keegan said. "There is nothing like a good rival. We're going to come ready to play. I can tell you right now the defense will be ready to go."

"We can't drop to 1-2 in the division," Maney said. "This is a crosstown rivalry and a make-or-break game for us."

A loss to Niskayuna (0-2, 0-1) would have severely hindered Columbia's drive for a Class AA playoff berth. Losing to La Salle wouldn't help, either.

"Our defense played really well against Niskayuna. All they basically do is throw the ball," Keegan said. "We buckled down, handled our responsibilities and just played 'D.' We need to do it again against La Salle."

Joining Gilmore-VanHoesen on the defensive line are nose guard Justin Snide and ends Jake Faas and Andrew Gawrys.

Chris Smith leads the Blue Devils with 298 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Anthony South and Keegan handle the linebacker positions to go with Maney and Kenny Mathieu at the corners and Connor Ramon and Murphy Lill at safety.

The win over Niskayuna was especially satisfying for Columbia after it squandered a 28-14 lead in 2010 and fell 34-28 in overtime to the Silver Warriors.

"We didn't close the book last year. We left it open and they shut it for us," Keegan said. "We finished the job this time."

Maney says the Blue Devils -- just 2-7 in 2010 -- carry a great deal more confidence after two strong showings. He believes things can get much easier if Columbia cuts down on its mistakes.

"Our offense has racked up a ton of yards. We just have to do a better job of putting the ball in the end zone and cut down on the turnovers," Maney said. "Last week, we did a much better job of controlling the trenches on defense and (Singleton) really had to get rid of the ball quickly. Every time I looked back, El was on top of their quarterback."

The Blue Devils will require another superlative defensive showing in order subdue a La Salle squad coming off a wild 58-48 win at Queensbury.

The Cadets are led by third-year starting quarterback Garrett Delory.

"He likes to throw the ball. He'll run it when necessary and he likes to run," Cavotta said of Delory. "La Salle likes to run the ball more often than Niskayuna."

"This is the benchmark for our season: Week 3, a rival and the first home game of the year," Keegan said. "It is going to be a good atmosphere. La Salle is a good team and they'll come ready to play. We'll be ready too.

"We won't give up. We might get blind-sided one play and have chin-straps flying open everywhere. We'll just strap them up again and keep playing."

Reach James Allen at 454-5062 or jallen@timesunion.com.

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