Hollidaysburg Area High School football coach John Barton doesn't get defensive when talking about the Golden Tigers' defense.
He comes right out and admits it has to perform better this season.
"It was definitely a point of emphasis," Barton said. "We felt that, if you play good defense, you're in any game. Last year we struggled more than any other year."
The Tigers have had little problem moving the ball or putting it in the end zone the last few years, averaging around 25 points per game over the last three season. The problem has been that too many of their scores look like those from basketball and not football - 35-27, 47-35, 46-42.
Hollidaysburg's new emphasis on defense will be put to the test on Friday night at 7 p.m. when a program that has hung its hat on stopping opponents - Highlands - comes to Tiger Stadium to open both the season and the Greater Allegheny Conference schedule.
"Last year, they were in the playoffs. They held Ringgold in check pretty well, even though they lost," Barton said of the Golden Rams. "The thing they do very, very well is play defense. They are quick as cats and very physical. They don't stay blocked. They hit you. That's their mantra. They're going to win with defense."
If Highlands' history holds true and Barton's defensive improvements prove fruitful, it could be a very low scoring game. Hollidaysburg has six starters back on that side of the ball; linebacker Kaleb Springer and lineman Matt Barton were among the team's top tacklers in 2011, and returning defensive back Brian Urban led the Tigers in pass breakups with two and fumble recoveries with five.
"Defensively, we're attacking the ball better. We're getting a lot of hats to the ball," Barton said. "I really like that. We're playing the kind of defense I like to see."
In addition to the returnees, the Tigers have a much-anticipated group of younger players coming up to join in. Hollidaysburg's junior high team went 8-1 last season.
"I think we're a mix. There are guys from that group that definitely are going to contribute, some more than others. I think we're going to have some experience and we're going to have some youth," Barton said. "Obviously, when you have youth, you're going to have mistakes. But, if they are good enough to play, they are good enough to make plays, too."
Golden Rams coach Sam Albert doesn't have that same luxury in terms of upper-class experience to mesh with the youthful potential: He only has three seniors on the roster and calls this his youngest team in 32 years of coaching.
He does, though, return a couple of exceptional linebackers in Alan Cratsenberg and Zach Masur. They spearheaded a defense that only surrendered 123 points as the Rams went 7-3 last season, and Albert looks for more of the same.
"That's our philosophy no matter how young we are. We thrive on defense," Albert said. "I'm kind of old-school. I was raised that defense wins games and championships."
Despite the extra work Barton and his staff have devoted to the defensive side of the ball, Albert is very wary of the Tiger offense.
"They looked incredible against Huntingdon. I think they scored five touchdowns," Albert said. "They sure looked polished in the skill positions and big up front."
Barton will need that, because this new conference, which also includes 2011 playoff teams like Franklin Regional, Knoch, Greensburg Salem, Mars and Indiana, looks like an incredible challenge on paper.
"It's a good conference. From top to bottom, I don't think there's anyone you can look past," Barton said. "It'll be a dogfight to get into those spots you want."