WINTHROP — Dave St. Hilaire had a senior-laden and talented team. But the Winthrop/Monmouth football coach wanted a little bit more.

He wanted a defense, a special one. A snarling, fiery, hungry group that punished ballcarriers, made yards difficult to come by and points even harder.

“We envisioned our defense being an attacking (one) with the speed and the athletes that we have,” he said. “Attacking, putting pressure on other teams, creating turnovers.”

St. Hilaire has one, and it’s a big reason why the Ramblers are in the Class D South final and on the doorstep of a state final appearance after a trio of seasons of falling short. The offense piles up the points, but often lost in the din of a lit-up scoreboard is a defense that is just as much a reason why Winthrop/Monmouth is undefeated and has been rolling its way to the regional final and perhaps beyond.

It wasn’t there before, not when the Ramblers were losing in the South semifinals in 2013 and 2015 and the South quarters in 2014. But it’s there now.

“We saw some glimpses of it last year, but this year, we’ve intercepted I think 12 passes,” St. Hilaire said. “We’re ball-hawking, attacking. It’s what we envisioned the team to be, and it’s what we’ve shown throughout the year.

“We put some concentration on it, but we’ve got athletes,” St. Hilaire said. “We just put them in position to make plays, and they do it.”

It translates on the scoreboard, where the Ramblers have only allowed 9.25 points per game, the second-best number in Class D. Only two teams all season have broken double figures against them. They’re fast and they swarm to the ball, on the ground or through the air.

“I think the key to their defense is their team speed,” said Lisbon coach Dick Mynahan, whose team will face W/M in the final Saturday afternoon. “Our first game, we wanted to get to the outside and we had very little luck getting there. They swarm there and they’re fast, fast, fast getting to the ball.”

And they hit — hard — when they get there.

“I believe how physical we bring it,” defensive end Zach Wallace answered when asked what the team’s strength is. “We have some guys that will come out, smash heads, and keep on going.”

It can be easy for defense to be overlooked considering the attack the Ramblers have on offense. Nate Scott and Alec Brown are one of the class’ best running back combinations, and quarterback Matt Ingram has a pair of fine receiving options in Bennett Brooks and Andrew Pazdziorko. The Ramblers score and score often, putting up over 34 points per game, and earning five of their eight wins by three scores or more. And though the other half of a blowout is the defense doing its job, the offense gets the attention.

For the defensive players, that’s just fine.

“I don’t think we’re getting overshadowed,” Pazdziorko, also an outside linebacker, said. “People look at the offense and see the points they’re putting up. But our defense has been a big part of our success.”

“In practice, our coaches always give us praise too,” inside linebacker and lineman Jack Vickerson said. “We get recognition as much as the offense does. … It’s not one-sided there.”

Besides, there was a time when Winthrop/Monmouth had to lean on that defense. The offense that in recent weeks has gone up and down the field couldn’t find its rhythm in the first few games of the season, hindered by a flat running game and scuffling passing attack. The Ramblers scored 19 points against Traip Academy in the second week of the season, then mustered only 14 in the third game against Dirigo.

The pressure was on, but the defense made sure it didn’t matter. Traip scored eight points, Dirigio scored six, W/M erupted for 33 points the next week and the funk was over.

“At that point, yeah, you feel a lot more on your shoulders,” Vickerson said. “There’s a lot more pressure. But at the same time, you know, you’ve just got to get through it and try to pull out a win.” “There were some stretches where it looked a bit patchy,” Wallace said. “But over time, it has really developed.”

The trend has continued; whenever the offense needs some help from the defense, it has delivered.

“Whenever we need to make the plays, we’ll make the plays. If we need to stop them, we’ll stop them,” Wallace said. “We’ve shown it throughout the year. We make big plays.”

There are examples scattered throughout the season. In that Dirigo game, Cameron Gaghan forced a fumble after the Cougars reached the Ramblers’ red zone, and Scott intercepted a pass to end a drive in the closing minutes. Against Oak Hill, Morgan Bellemare forced a fumble with seven minutes to go that set up the winning drive in a 29-22 victory. And in the playoff rematch with Dirigo, Brooks, the leader of W/M’s airtight secondary, intercepted three passes to snuff out any chance of a competitive contest.

The big plays come from one-way and two-way players alike, showing that quantity is as much a strength of the Ramblers as quality. With 35 players and 11 seniors, W/M has the manpower to start the game strong and end it that way as well.

“We’ve had defensive linemen that don’t play any offense. We’ve had an offensive line that doesn’t play any defense,” St. Hilaire said. “So you get that defensive line and they’re fresher than the other team’s. But we’ve got linebackers and skill guys in different positions that can just get to the ball and come up and make tackles.”

Now’s a good time to do it. The weather’s getting colder, the opponents are getting better and points are harder to find. The ability to stop the other team becomes increasingly paramount. The Ramblers know this. And they’re ready.

“This is where I feel like more people are going to notice the defenses throughout the league and the state,” Pazdziorko said. “It’s more important for the defense to be able to execute and hold other offenses down. They’re going to be close games throughout the rest of the playoffs.”

That doesn’t bother St. Hilaire. Not with what he’s seen.

“We’ve got a full vote of confidence in them,” he said. “We are fully confident in putting the game in the hands of our defense if we need to.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

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Twitter: @dbonifantMTM