WESTPORT -- For as dominant as the Staples High football team was last fall on its way to its sixth FCIAC championship and its second appearance in the Class LL state final in the last three years, longtime head coach Marce Petroccio believes his defense could have done more.

One of the conference's traditional powers on both sides of the ball, the Wreckers came into last season with nine new starters on defense and they introduced a new scheme, changing from a 3-4 to a 4-3.

Statistically, the Wreckers finished among the best on defense with 62 sacks (22 more than any other team in the state) and 19 interceptions (sixth in the state), but they also showed their flaws at times, and surrendered close to 20 points per game.

"Last year our defense was not very good," senior cornerback James Frusciante said. "We gave up a lot of yards and a lot of points."

With all of spring football and a few days of training camp complete, the defense has had some much-needed time this offseason to right those wrongs.

"These kids have the attitude that they want to get better," Petroccio said following practice on Tuesday. "I don't really know if it would matter what defense we're in now. They have a hunger, they have some pride. They're working hard.

"The foundation of this program is defense."

After getting its feet wet in the 4-3 scheme a year ago, Staples returns a defense that's loaded with playmakers, both in the front seven and in the secondary. Petroccio, who is entering his 20th season as head coach, believes that the team has "improved tremendously" along the defensive line with the return of senior Pieter Hoets (third in the state with 14 sacks in 2011), Rich Eldh and Jared Levi, and is confident that it will show on the field this fall.

"If we don't play better defense this year, we'll struggle," Petroccio said. "I'm confident in the fact that the kids have really invested a lot of time into it."

At linebacker, Staples brings back Lance Lonergan, who tied with Hoets for the team lead in tackles (112) and Kevin Kearney. In the secondary, the Wreckers have Frusciante and Joey Zelkowitz at cornerback, and Nick Kelly (team-leading six interceptions in 2011) and Greg Strauss at safety.

"We like to definitely pride ourselves on our defense. We've got to be tough, we've got to be quick, we've got to be fast," Strauss said. "We've got to step it up this year."

Strauss, who played primarily at cornerback last season, said that the experience the defense has had in the 4-3 is "definitely helping a lot," and like his teammates, he's eager to ramp up the level of physicality at practice. The Wreckers start practicing in full pads on Saturday and open the season Sept. 14 against St. Joseph at home.

"We're picking up on things a lot quicker. We've definitely got the hang of things--full speed already," Strauss said. "We're really excited to get going in pads and to start hitting a little more."

Staples' offseason has been a busy one with 10 days of spring football and weight training--both of which Petroccio believes are essential these days--and the players have quickly molded into game shape.

"They worked hard in the offseason. We lifted four days a week, we've run four days a week," Petroccio said. "I don't know if I can get them in any better shape than they are now. ... I feel confident that they're in game shape already, so we're going to keep pushing that and make sure we don't lose the edge."

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