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Pia Puts Teeth in Norwalk's Defense

NORWALK, Conn. – Nick Pia has been playing or coaching teams in the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference for more than 30 years. Pia, the architect of the defense that has spearheaded Norwalk High School’s run to its first state playoff appearance since 1998, hasn’t seen many better than this year’s Bears.

“As far as athletic ability and speed, I haven’t coached a better defense,’’ said Pia, who has been at Norwalk for nine years and was the former head coach at Stamford High.

The Bears collected their first shutout of the season in Thursday’s 17-0 victory over a Brien McMahon High team that had given some good teams fits with its speed and versatility. Though it was the Bears’ first shutout, they have allowed more than two touchdowns in only two games this fall. New Canaan beat the Bears, 28-14, and Harding lost to Norwalk, 42-20.

Some of the league’s top teams, such as playoff-bound Ridgefield and Stamford, mustered little against Norwalk’s defense. The Bears also play better each week.

“We’ve been knocking on the door to get a shutout all season,’’ Pia said. “We put in a new scheme this year, and I think they’re starting to feel comfortable with what they’re doing.”

Inside linebackers Bobby Stringfellow and Dave Klein anchor the defense. Outside linebackers Patrick Whalen and Gil Araujo are also having strong seasons. Delshawn Wilson, with six interceptions, is an outstanding safety. Linemen Kwazee Rice and Brandon Rembert lead a strong defensive line. “We’re able to do what we do with the linebackers because Rice and Rembert do the dirty work,’’ Pia said. “The guys we have behind them are so athletic.”

Stringfellow (92 tackles) and Klein (89) always seem to be around the ball. Rice has nine sacks, and Whalen has eight. Araujo (86 tackles, 6.5 sacks) had eight tackles and 2½ sacks in the win over McMahon. Tying it all together is Pia, who was a two-time All-League selection for Stamford High in 1978 and 1979. Pia was the head coach at Stamford in 1989 and '90, where his teams were known were known for their defense.

“He and I sat down after I was hired, and I said, 'I don’t know if you know this or not, but you’re the new defensive coordinator,'’’ first-year coach Sean Ireland said. “He said, ‘I knew this was coming.’ We sat down and drew it up. He’s the mastermind behind it.”

Pia doesn’t have much time to develop a plan for Tuesday’s Class LL quarterfinal against West Hartford's Conard High School. The Chieftains are averaging 32.5 points per game and have scored 40 or more in four games. The Bears, by contrast, allowed 120 points all year and led their conference in fewest points allowed. Whatever the outcome of Tuesday’s game, Norwalk’s return to the state tournament has been a fun ride for Pia.

“Thirty years of it, and it’s not getting old yet, not with a group like this,’’ Pia said. “You look forward to going to practice every day. They’re a special group of kids, and I’m very happy that they’re in this situation.”

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