As Hylton senior defensive backs Marshall Dill and Darren James dressed on Friday night after their Northwestern Region Division 6 semifinal win over Woodbridge, Dill could not resist taking a good-natured jab at his secondary mate.
"Yeah, guess who has more interceptions now?" needled Dill, who earlier in the evening had picked off his third pass of the season -- one more than James.
"That's all right," James replied. "I'm going to catch up to you."
Such friendly competition -- "That's just how we work," Dill said -- has been plenty effective for the Bulldogs' defense, the secondary in particular. Eight Hylton players have intercepted passes this season, giving the team 19 in 11 games.
Last season, the secondary's play was no joking matter. In fact, Dill believes it was considered the "weak link" of a defense that was burned 10 times on touchdown plays of 52 yards or more.
Hylton Coach Lou Sorrentino, who is second on the all-time interceptions list at Moravian (Pa.) College with 24, this season has stressed his "eight not 80" theme: It's okay to give up an eight-yard play, but let's not give up the 80-yard play.
Sorrentino attributes the secondary's shaky performance last year to inexperience and injuries. He underscored his concern early this season by showing the Bulldogs a film of opposing teams' big plays from last year.
The intention wasn't to humiliate the defenders but to illustrate that all the mistakes they made were correctable, whether it was understanding assignments better or taking a more advantageous angle on a tackle or knowing where your help was in the overall scheme.
"If you group it all together like that -- big play, big play, big play -- it becomes more noticeable and the emphasis is there," Sorrentino said. "I think it got their attention. We always want to live to play another down, is what we call it. If you take away the quick-strike capability and make someone earn it, it becomes much tougher."
That's the task this week against an Osbourn team that in the last four weeks alone has scored on passes of 89, 39, 42, 51, 68 and 86 yards and runs of 44, 61, 51, 55 and 56 yards, with junior quarterback Brandon Hogan usually involved in the long gainers.
The Bulldogs' defenders have made similar game-changing plays of their own. They have returned seven of their 19 interceptions for touchdowns.
"We practice that," said James, whose quick feet and sharp instincts have trumped his inconsistency from a year ago. "Any time we get a pick [in practice] we make sure we run it back to finish the play off. We have to yell 'Bingo!' so the rest of the defense can hear so they know we have the ball and they should turn around and block."
"When I intercept a ball, my first thought is to get into the end zone," said Dill, also the team's leading receiver.
If "bingo" is the word, then the second quarter against Osbourn Park must have sounded like Saturday night at the fire hall. In that period, four Bulldogs -- senior Tony Keiling, Dill and juniors Tabian Johnson and Omoniyi Bakare -- returned interceptions for touchdowns.
The Bulldogs picked off three passes last week in the 12-7 semifinal win over Woodbridge -- two by junior Rondell Kelley and the other by Dill, a full-time offensive starter who has shared time on defense with junior T.J. Clark (out last week with an ankle injury).
Kelley, the leader of the secondary from his free safety spot, had interceptions in each region playoff game last year.
"They have 11 guys that get to the ball," said Woodbridge Coach Keith King, whose team was intercepted five times by Hylton in the teams' three meetings last year. "I think they're capable of playing solid defense up front so their defensive backs don't have to be up in the run game so much."
Last year the Bulldogs wondered who was going to give up the big play. Now they wonder about who is going to make it. Old defensive back Sorrentino liked how they went after the passes against Woodbridge almost as if they were the intended receivers.
"I really liked the way they went up," he said. "I thought they were real athletic ball hawks."