CLEARWATER — The obituary for Countryside’s defense was swift and stinging.
There were too many graduating players, too many new faces, too much change to overcome, the experts predicted.
It was a jarring dismissal of a defense that ranked among the county’s best during a four-year run (2009-12) in which the Cougars went a combined 28-2 on the field in the regular season.
But an odd thing happened on the way to football irrelevance.
Countryside is back on its familiar perch atop the county’s defenses. The Cougars have changed nothing about their style but are allowing the fourth-fewest points in Pinellas (46) during a season in which the dominant story line was supposed to be a defense struggling through a transitional period.
“Obviously, we had some changes after losing so many guys on both sides of the ball,” coach Jared Davis said. “We lost a lot on offense, too. But I thought our defense still had a chance to be pretty good and was a group that would be ahead of the curve, at least early on, because there are so many moving parts on offense.”
Countryside (4-1) is the latest version of what can happen in football when holdovers mesh, young players blossom, a quarterback properly manages games, a defense dominates, and those ingredients and other murky intangibles coalesce and click.
The Cougars, who are 2-0 in Class 7A, District 9 and tied with unbeaten East Lake and Pinellas Park atop the standings, have opened some eyes by continuing the tradition of playing old-fashioned, physical defense the way the school’s dominant teams of the past did.
The strength of the defense is up front. Despite losing Mike Love to graduation and Ricky Thomas to an out-of-state transfer, Countryside still is wreaking havoc at the line of scrimmage thanks to the play of defensive end Steven Czop, a senior mainstay who leads the team with six sacks.
“There were a lot of doubters, people who thought we wouldn’t be as good,” Czop said. “But everyone in the locker room believed we would still be just as strong. We have great coaches that prepare us well, and it’s the same confidence and same feeling I have with this group as I did the past two years.”
That confidence started in the spring jamboree with close losses to Largo and Palm Harbor University.
“I knew at that moment we had a chance to do something because the defense didn’t allow a point,” Czop said. “Other teams scored off special teams.”
The regular season opened with a 15-13 victory over Lakewood, a team many predicted to make a deep run through the playoffs. The wins have continued, including shutouts against Northeast and Clearwater the past two games.
But there are few easy games left on the schedule. Besides Lakewood, the Cougars have faced only one other winning team in the first half of the season. Now things get tougher with games against East Lake (7-0) next week and Pinellas Park (7-0) two weeks later to determine playoff spots.
“I think these first couple of games helped to get our bearings and get our mojo back on defense,” Czop said. “But our coaches have always said that August and September are for pretenders and October and November are for contenders.
“We’ll be up for the challenge the next few weeks. We’ll be ready.”