GARDINER — Pat Munzing is enjoying his job these days.

Munzing is the Gardiner Area High School football team’s defensive coordinator, which means he’s the one calling plays for a red-hot Tigers defense that has slowed, stymied and shut down one offense after another, and turned Gardiner seemingly overnight from an also-ran into a championship contender.

And at its heart is the defensive line, one that Munzing can use to wreak all the havoc he wants.

“We come in and watch film and they’re pretty critical of themselves, which is what’s made them better,” he said. “They know what they did wrong, how they can improve. … And they’ve gotten so much better at working at those deficiencies, and now you’re starting to see it start to pay off. It’s impressive, it’s fun. It’s a lot of fun to call this defense with these guys.”

They haven’t erred often of late. When you play defense as well as Gardiner has all season and of late, holding three straight teams to a single score, you get contributions from everyone. The secondary of Blaise Tripp, Kolton Brochu, Collin Foye and Dimitri Paradis is a ball-hawking, instinctive unit, and the linebacking corps of Garrett Maheux, Cam Michaud and Nate Malinowski punishes ball carriers and receivers in space.

But high school football is all about the trenches, where the work is hard and the spotlight rarely shines. And between linemen Roy Appleby, Dylan Spencer and Austin Weymouth, Gardiner has been as good there, if not better, than anyone.

“We’re crazy,” said Appleby, a junior defensive tackle. “We stop it all. We stop the inside run, we stop the run, we stop the quarterback, we can rush the quarterback. … We play like animals. It’s a swarm.”

Gardiner’s defense has been its trademark all season, but head coach Joe White said he’s seen the unit’s play, particularly on the line, improve as the Tigers have made their playoff surge from fringe contender to C South championship game participant.

“I see them playing comfortable, playing excited, dialed-in, focused,” he said. “I don’t think it’s something they have to condition themselves for as the game goes on. I think they’ve got it from the first snap.”

The result is a group of players up front that can be tough to read as the game goes on.

“The whole idea is to just create confusion for the offense,” White said. “We’ll send a tackle into the B gap on one play, and then C gap on the next play. He’s hitting inside-outside, and the ‘backer is doing the opposite thing, he’s going B gap, C gap. It’s a little game, who’s going to show up in which gap.”

And they’ve been best in the tightest moments. Gardiner’s defense can look downright ordinary with a long field to defend; on rushing plays, either designed run plays or quarterback sacks and keepers, the Tigers are allowing 5.28 yards per play starting outside their 40-yard line in the last three weeks — wins over Cony in the regular season finale and Morse and Leavitt in the playoffs.

Once opponents breach the 40, however, Gardiner’s defense has stiffened, and allowed 2.33 yards per rush. When the pressure mounts, so does the resolve of the Gardiner line to hold its ground.

“Sometimes I wish they flipped that switch a little earlier than to wait to get into the red zone to play red zone defense, but hey,” Munzing said, laughing. “If they’re going to continue to play red zone defense like that, I’ll take it.”

The line has gotten contributions from several players on the roster, including Mike Stratton, Jake Fles and Brad Sandelin, who have rotated in, most often in place of Weymouth, who also serves as a starting offensive lineman and kicker, in order to keep the unit fresh and maintain the coaching staff’s demands for full energy and aggression on every snap.

The line’s anchors, however, have been Spencer and Appleby, a sophomore and junior, respectively, who play only one way and have rewarded that designation by becoming the team’s most disruptive players up front.

“Dylan is very quick and slants hard and makes big hits,” White said. “Roy’s actually great at reading offenses. He’s very cerebral when it comes to being able to pre-read what teams are going to do. So Roy has a little bit more of a kind of a feel and anticipation for what’s going to happen next, and Dylan just goes, 100 miles an hour.”

They’ve all jelled, adapting to a mentality the Tigers’ coaching staff has tried to implement over the past two seasons — make up your mind quickly, then attack.

“Our motto when we started this two years ago was that ‘If you think, you stink,’ ” Munzing said. “We made it really easy for them to give them their reads up front and to just get after the football.”

The emphasis is on reactions and first reads, and it’s not uncommon for the players on the line — a tight-knit group that refers to themselves as “brothers” — to share what they’re seeing to make sure everyone is on the same page.

“On the line, me, Roy and Austin, we’ll talk,” Spencer said. ” ‘Hey, you get him,’ or ‘Are you getting double-teamed over there?’ ‘How is this working?’ We all talk and stay together.”

So far, it’s been working.

“They have an incredible ability to find the ball,” Munzing said. “I haven’t seen it at this level of high school football, for someone like Roy Appleby to find the football 10 yards down the line of scrimmage away from the play. It’s amazing to watch.”

The Tigers have made their share of plays while stuffing runs and rushing passers — Gardiner has notched six sacks over the past three games — but the players up front aren’t selfish. They know they’re part of a strong defense, not just a strong line, and that their job is to set up their teammates for plays as much as it is to make those plays themselves.

“If I don’t make the tackle, I have people to back me up and make plays,” Spencer said. “It’s kind of like, when someone doesn’t make the play and someone else does, it’s kind of like we all did it together. Everybody contributed to make that play.”

As Gardiner has made its way into November, it’s become harder to miss those contributions.

“They’re just in there digging and digging and digging,” Munzing said. “And now people are starting to realize that, these three guys, they’re tough, and they’re good.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.