BELLEVILLE — Zach Donaldson always wanted to be a quarterback and on the Althoff High football roster, that's one of the two positions next to his name.
But like several other Crusaders, Donaldson has found a home on an effective defense that includes star talent as well as blue-collar workers, intelligence and brute force.
Not many linebackers wear No. 10, but Donaldson spent most of last Saturday afternoon drilling the double-digit into the minds -- and bodies -- of the running backs from Camp Point Central-Southeastern.
"We joke with him all the time, he started off wanting to be a quarterback and he fell in love with playing linebacker," Althoff coach Ken Turner said. "He's done a great job for us the last two years."
Donaldson racked up a career-high 11 tackles along with four assists last weekend in the 28-7 Class 2A quarterfinal victory that sent Althoff into the state title game on Friday.
"It had a lot to do with the defensive line, they were getting a good push and they weren't able to come out and block us," Donaldson said.
While it's easy for opponents and fans to look at senior lineman Merrick Jackson and linebacker Erik Furmanek --both all-state selections and Division I recruits -- there's a lot more to the Althoff defense.
It's a machine set up to run based on the production of each of its parts. The machinery has been running smoothly during a seven-game win streak that has the Crusaders (10-3) on the brink of their fourth state title.
They face Mercer County (13-0) in the Class 2A title game at 1 p.m. Friday in Champaign and will be bringing a defense with 24 interceptions and six players with 60 or more tackles.
"They make a lot of plays and with having so much of the focus on them, it allows the rest of the players to roam free and make plays," Donaldson said with a nod toward Jackson, the Illinois recruit, and Furmanek, who has several Division I offers. "We've all molded together as a defense. We know what each other's going to do and we know how to feed off of each other's energy."
Only Furmanek (159 tackles, four interceptions) has more tackles than Donaldson (107 tackles, four interceptions).
They are part of a solid linebacker group that includes sophomore linebackers Bret Silvestri (69 tackles, one interception) and Aaron Medina (60 tackles, two fumble recoveries).
"We've got the two big-name players in Merrick Jackson and Erik Furmanek, but we're way more than that," said Althoff defensive coordinator Matt Lauber. "You can have those guys but if the supporting cast doesn't hold up their end we're not going to be very good.
"They've all bought into the team format, that we have to do our job --and if we don't do our job then we're going to get beat."
Adding to the tradition
Senior defensive end Nolan Abernathy has even more motivation to leave Champaign as a state champion. His uncle, Jim Abernathy, was a starter on Althoff's state championship team.
"He lives out of town so I don't see him much, but hopefully he's in town for Thanksgiving so I can talk to him about it," said Nolan Abernathy, a two-way line starter who has 40 tackles and one sack.
Abernathy's father, Tim Abernathy, and uncles Stan Abernathy and David Abernathy also played for Althoff.
"My grandma's been to state championship games and she knows what it's like, so she's pretty excited about this one," Nolan Abernathy said. "It's exciting, ever since I was a little kid I wanted to be in this position and now I'm here -- and I'm ready to do something about it."
The 340-pound Jackson occupies plenty of space and attention and usually requires multiple blockers. As a result, it frees other the other linemen as well as linebackers looking to make a play.
"We're really big inside and Merrick's good at taking on double- and triple-teams and just letting the linebackers run free," Silvestri said. "When he's taking two or three guys, that keeps everybody else off you and you're free to make plays."
Silvestri hammered his way into the varsity lineup last year as a freshman, no easy task. When his father's Air Force duty transferred him to Scott Air Force Base from Memphis, Silvestri didn't know what to expect in a new school and new city.
"It was really welcoming, everybody kind of took me in and after a couple weeks I felt really comfortable," Silvestri said. "It was a really good experience."
Silvestri's 69 tackles rank fifth on the team and he's added some fullback duties to his list of duties. But linebacker still ranks well above fullback on his personal depth chart.
"It's so much fun," he said. "You just get to hit people as hard as you can. It's awesome."
Turner appreciates that kind of attitude.
"He's a guy that loves to hit and a guy that's always going to be around the ball and make a lot of tackles," Turner said of Silvestri. "He likes to clean up things."
Making an impact
Abernathy and defensive end Adam McElligott (42 tackles, two sacks) try to limit outside plays and turn everything into the heart of the Althoff defense. Erik Krause and Rodney Baker are also in the defensive line rotation.
The defensive line's success shows in Furmanek's other-worldly tackle total of 159.
"He's just an animal from kickoff time to the end of the game," Abernathy said. "He just never stops."
Just as important are the defensive backs led by senior cornerback Michael Harris and his team-leading 10 interceptions along with 68 tackles.
"That's just amazing for a high school defensive back," Lauber said of the interception total, while Turner called Harris "a warrior."
Althoff senior safety Cole Reichert (43 tackles, one interception) is a two-year starter who had seven picks as a junior.
Cornerback Blake Butz (28 tackles, two interceptions) hadn't played since his freshman year, but came back out as a senior and earned a starting spot.
The Crusader defense doesn't have a long shutout streak. But they've been extremely difficult to run the ball against throughout the playoffs and now will be up against probably the best offense _ and best quarterback --they've seen throughout the postseason.
"We're just trying to shut them down and get our offense back on the field," Lauber said. "That's our overall goal is to get our offense as many possessions as we can and then we'll be successful as a defense."
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2454.