READING — Zack Krugman rushed in for a sack, but instead, to his delight, came away with an interception when he gobbled up a ball fired straight at his gut.
The hard-hitting senior linebacker was welcomed back to the huddle by his exuberant Reading High teammates, slapping high-fives and knocking knuckles.
It was just another walk-through practice session on a Thursday afternoon for the Rocket defense, but there was an intensity running through the 11 players in black scrimmage jerseys.
That intensity has spilled over to game night: Reading High is off to a 4-0 start behind a swarming defense that has yet to concede a single point.
“Everyone is just doing their assignments, and when everyone does their one thing, it just shuts down everything,’’ said the 5-foot-11 Krugman. “The intensity all throughout the whole week [of practice] — we don’t take a day off.
“Even if it’s just a walk-through, everyone is as intense as they can possibly be, and that definitely helps Friday night.’’
The Rockets carried that heady intensity right into Friday’s matchup against Middlesex League rival Melrose.
With the Red Raiders threatening to punch in the game-tying score at the end of the first half, junior linebacker Liam Kenneally stepped in front of a Bryan Reale pass at the 3 and ripped off a 97-yard return as the Rockets rolled to a 26-0 win.
“I think it’s great complementary football,’’ said Reading’s coach, John Fiore .
“When the defense is playing well and getting stops, it’s a great time for your team. Inevitably, it sets up the kicking game, which sets up offense. When you’re playing defense that well, you get a lot of short field opportunities. It puts the pressure on the opponent and allows us to be more aggressive.’’
Junior quarterback Drew Belcher has capitalized on Reading’s aggressive offensive approach. In four games, the 6-foot-3 signal caller has 10 touchdowns, which leads all Division 2 quarterbacks.
“It’s 10 times easier. [The defense] takes a lot of weight off the offense’s shoulders,” Belcher said. “When they come out and make a big stop, a lot of the guys go two ways, so they’re already pumped up and it gets the offense pumped up.”
Since a 46-2 win in the opener — in which Lawrence took back a blocked extra point for two points — the Rockets have registered three straight shutouts.
Reading’s Dave Blanchard acknowledged the streak, but that’s not his focus.
“We’re realists; we realized it’s a nice streak and at some point someone is going to [score],’’ said Blanchard, a 14-year assistant on the Rocket staff who is in his fifth season as defensive coordinator.
“Our job every day is to keep less points on the board than we score on offense, and that’s all we care about.’’
This season, Blanchard installed a 4-3 base formation (four down linemen, three linebackers) after running a 3-4 last season.
“Year to year, we look at what our personnel will give us,’’ Blanchard said. “This year, we have a lot of rangy, athletic kids that can play defensive line as an end, but can also play coverage.’’
At the point of attack are Matt Comerford , junior Andrew Bourque , senior Peter Fodera, and junior John Donnellan .
Although Blanchard expects strong play from his veteran defensive front, he said he has been impressed with the play of linebackers Krugman, Kenneally, and Rob DiLoreto Jr.
“The linebacker core is relatively new, but they’ve really done a nice job,’’ Blanchard said. “They’ve got good length, they’re fast and athletic and can do a lot of different things, so it give us flexibility in what we can do on defense.’’
The captain of the defense is senior Greg Connery, a 5-foot-11-inch free safety who is a three-year starter.
“He’s done a tremendous job developing into a top-notch safety,’’ Blanchard said.
However, ask Connery about his success and he attributes it to the coaching of Blanchard.
“It’s awesome [playing for Blanchard],’’ Connery said. “He always knows what he’s doing. If you ask any questions, he has all the answers and he’s prepared every week when we come out. He tells us what to do and we just try to execute as best as possible.’’
Reading’s most impressive win was a 12-0 shutout over perennial power Brockton in Week 2.
The Rockets will face their biggest test to date Friday night, taking on fellow unbeaten Burlington (4-0) and its stellar senior back, Marcus Odiah (821 yards rushing, 11 touchdowns).
Andover head coach E.J. Perry has a simple philosophy.
“We don’t rebuild; we reload,’’ he said.
After the graduation of back Andrew Coke (2,998 career yards), Perry has tweaked his offense slightly to embrace a pass-heavy spread offense.
The results: a 4-0 start. Andover has outscored its foes, 142 to 55.
Senior quarterback C.J. Scarpa (1,000-plus yards, 13 TD passes) has a plethora of targets in 6-foot-4 wide receiver Will Heikkinen (25 catches, 370 yards, 2 TDs), Cam Farnham (15 catches, 283 yards, 5 TDs), and 6-foot-2 tight-end Andrew Deloury (4 TDs).
“Heikkinen is double-covered every game and he has 27 catches,’’ Perry said. “Farnham has done a tremendous job, and he’s electrifying when he gets loose. And the biggest surprise is our tight end Andrew Deloury, who has four touchdown receptions.
“The kids have bought into the offensive spread, and it’s exciting.’’
Andover opened the season with a 50-35 win over North Andover, charging back from a 35-21 deficit with 29 points in the final seven minutes.
“That set the tone this year,’’ Perry said. “[North Andover] Coach [John] Rafferty had a great game plan, but to have the resolve to come back emphatically builds confidence.’’
Last Friday, the Golden Warriors beat Xaverian, 15-13. The Hawks are just 1-3, but two losses came against St. Joseph’s (N.J.) and Brockton.
“That team is still very good,’’ Perry said. “If you look at their defensive line, you won’t find many in the state like theirs with [University of Michigan recruit] Maurice Hurst . That was a tremendous accomplishment.’’
So where will the Golden Warriors finish in the MVC?
“All we’re talking about is [our game against] Tewksbury [Saturday, 2:30 p.m.],’’ Perry said.
Here and there
Chelmsford High will be without quarterback Bobby Sullivan after he broke his left wrist (non-throwing hand) in his team’s 35-27 win over Dracut Saturday. Sullivan, a senior, has six TD passes this season. . . . Phillips Exeter quarterback Jonathan DiBiaso (Exeter) will miss at least three weeks after separating his shoulder in a 23-16 win over Choate Saturday. DiBiaso threw for three touchdowns in his first start of the season, a 34-13 win over Worcester Academy. . . . Former Billerica QB Nick LaSpada lined up at wide receiver and caught the game-winning touchdown in Taft’s 27-26 victory over Deerfield Saturday. . . . Everett’s 28-game win streak was snapped with a 13-7 overtime loss to Barnstable Friday; its last loss was Dec. 5, 2009, a 29-0 defeat to Xaverian in the Division 1 Super Bowl.Anthony Gulizia can be reached at email@example.com.