It did not take long for perhaps the most pressing question about this high-scoring St. Joseph football team to be answered.
“We lost three really good players off the defense last year,” Cadets coach Joe DellaVecchia said, referring to seniors Mike Dilorio, Jude Andrzejewski and Connor Murphy. “They were big-play guys and real leaders. The question was, could we replace them?”
In the first game, back in early September, the Cadets opened the season against the state’s preseason No. 1 team, New Canaan.
Final score: St. Joseph 28, New Canaan 0.
The question had been immediately and unequivocally answered.
And it wasn’t just one good day. Through 11 games so far, heading into Sunday’s state Class M semifinal against Killingly (at Trumbull High, 12:30 p.m.), the Cadets’ defense has allowed 61 points, recorded five shutouts and allowed six or fewer points nine times.
“We’re really happy with the play of the defense, especially the D-line,” Della Vecchia said.
Offensive stars such as quarterback David Summers, running back Jaden Shirden and receivers Will Diamantis, Jesse Bike, Phil Pasmeg and Brady Hutchison have gotten the headlines this season, and rightfully so — the Cadets have scored 373 points. But without the performance of the defense, and especially junior defensive linemen Jermaine Williams, Mike Morrissey and Cayden Porter, the Cadets might not be just one win away from playing in their seventh state final in 10 years.
“Our linebackers (senior Jesse Lawson and junior Alex Pagliarini) have really played well, but the D-line has been our strength,” Della Vecchia said. “The three of them all started as sophomores, and Jermaine started as a freshman, so we expected them to get better. They’re a year older, they play with such high energy and they worked hard in the weight room to get stronger. And all three hang out with each other so they all have each other’s back.”
The bond is undeniable and no doubt beneficial.
“I love my brothers on the D-line,” Morrissey said. “We’re best friends and the bond pushes us. If Cayden or Whopper (Williams) get a sack, I’m just as happy as if I got the sack.”
“Being best friends we grew up together,” Porter added. “After winning the state championship last year as sophomores, we wanted to make a statement this year and we did that.”
Williams, a 5-foot-11, 303-pound nose tackle, was named to the All-FCIAC first team this season, recording 4½ sacks and 30 tackles.
“I always want my linemen to be taller but as a freshman Jermaine was better than anybody at camp,” Della Vecchia said. “He’s strong, very athletic and if you don’t double-team him you’re asking for trouble.”
It would also lead to trouble if you do double-team Williams. That would leave one less blocker for the others.
The 6-1, 190-pound Morrissey, who is the head coach’s nephew, is considered undersized for a defensive end. But that didn’t stop him from earning All-FCIAC second-team honors this season.
“Mike is smaller than everyone he goes up against but it doesn’t matter because he plays in one gear and is so quick off the ball,” Della Vecchia said. “He’s probably more of an outside linebacker type of kid, but he took off at defensive end as a sophomore, so we haven’t moved him.”
“I’m definitely undersized but I can do whatever I need to do to make up for that,” said Morrissey, who leads the team with eight sacks.
On the other end is the 6-foot, 241-pound Porter, who has also had a fine season as a second-year starter but curiously did not receive All-FCIAC honors.
“Cayden is probably our most emotional leader of the pack,” Della Vecchia said. “He’s strong and tough and a real throw-back type. He likes to mix it up.”
Porter has had to deal with a major off-field issue this fall as his stepfather is in a New York hospital undergoing treatment for cancer.
“Cayden has been carrying that burden around for a while and that’s not easy,” Della Vecchia added. “It’s real tough for a 16-year-old kid, but you know what? You wouldn’t know it by talking to him.”
Porter, refusing to let his family crisis affect his play, has four sacks and 25 tackles and has been a main cog in stuffing the run.
“I’m just dealing with it, going through my high school years and trying to get farther ahead in life,” he said about his stepfather’s condition. “My brothers on the D-line are always there for me so I know I can count on them. We lean on each other when facing adversity.”
Porter, Morrissey, Williams and the rest of the defense know the offensive unit is going to get most of the headlines. They’re Ok with that, although the supposed lack of notoriety might have been somewhat of a factor for their outstanding play this season.
“Yeah, maybe it motivated us a little,” Porter said.
“I’m sure as a group they’ve talked about it,” Della Vecchia added. “We have five shutouts but in a couple of games that could’ve been shutouts the JVs who were in were scored upon. The starters take a lot of pride in shutting teams out. They bring it every day at practice. Their one goal is to win a championship.”
OK, but first comes getting back to the state finals in order to defend their state championship (the Cadets beat Ansonia last year for the Class S crown). St. Joseph (10-1), the Class M top seed, beat No. 8 seed Rockville in Tuesday’s quarterfinals, 49-7. Next up Sunday is defending Class M champ and No. 4 seed Killingly, which routed Cheney Tech, 62-0, on Tuesday.
“They are a run-first team,” Della Vecchia said of the 10-1 Redmen, who, led by Nsaiah Harriet (798 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns), have rushed for more than 3,100 yards this season. Killingly quarterback Luke Desaulnier has attempted just 84 passes in 11 games, compared to Summers, who has thrown the ball 228 times for 1,959 yards and 28 scores for St. Joseph.
“We can handle Killingly’s run game,” Porter said. “Facing challenges makes it more fun. It’s why we liked facing New Canaan in week one.”
If Killingly has success running the ball and controlling the clock, it means less time on the field for Summers and the offense, and that would spell big-time trouble for the Cadets, who are gunning for their sixth state championship in 10 years under Della Vecchia.
“The D-line has to be ready to shut down the run,” Della Vecchia said. “The front seven will have to play lights out.”
In other words, just keep doing what they have been doing.