Defense is Cape Elizabeth High’s football calling card.

Rallying to the ball, hitting with authority and giving up points grudgingly is nothing new under 14-year head coach Aaron Filieo.

But how those things are done is different in 2017. Graduating 18 players from last year’s team that was unbeaten before falling to Wells in the Class C South final necessitated an honest evaluation of the talent that remained. Cape had athletes but lacked players with interior linemen size.

“We had to change our defense for the first time in over a decade,” Filieo said. “I did it reluctantly. My defensive staff had to convince me.”

Gone was Filieo’s preferred 5-2, featuring a nose guard over center, two tackles and a pair of defensive ends across the line. This year they’ve gone to a 4-4, using more players with mobility at defensive end and outside linebacker – guys like Jacob Budischewsky, who Filieo said is “the heartbeat of the defense,” as an outside backer.

“We have another guy like me, (Jack) Tower, and last year we were both strong safeties,” said Budischewsky.

In the old set, Budischewsky or Tower would be a backup. Now both are starting outside linebackers.

“Our team has a lot of skinny, athletic guys. So the (4-4) just put us in a better situation to put the best guys on the field,” said Budischewsky, one of Cape’s four captains.

The new defense, featuring eight new starters, has Cape back in the Class C South final.

No. 2 Cape (8-2) will host No. 4 Gardiner (5-5) on Friday night. Cape Elizabeth beat Gardiner 21-13 in the second week of the season. That was the first of five straight losses for Gardiner.

Both teams have won four straight on the strength of their defenses.

Cape has allowed 87 points this season, 20 in its last four wins, including a 50-7 trouncing of Lake Region in the quarterfinal and Friday’s 14-0 semifinal shutout against No. 3 Fryeburg Academy.

Gardiner upset top-ranked Leavitt 7-6 last Friday after beating No. 5 Morse, 13-8. In both wins, the Tigers came from behind with a fourth-quarter touchdown.

Gardiner has allowed 179 points this season, 41 in its last four games.

After beating Leavitt, Coach Joe White said, “our defense is the best in the league.”

“Oh, we saw that,” said Luc Houle, a Cape Elizabeth defensive tackle and captain. “I think we shouldn’t comment on that too much. We have our own opinions.”

“We’ll find out Friday night,” Budischewsky added.

Houle, all-conference linebacker Ryan Weare and defensive end Bear Huffard are the only starters back on Cape’s defense. The offense is also nearly brand new, with just Houle and Weare (at running back) returning as starters.

Houle said adapting to a new defensive formation wasn’t that difficult for the players.

“Our defense has such a good tradition and we’re just so intense on defense, I didn’t think the formation would make that much of a difference,” he said.

More important was making sure the new guys – players like junior inside linebacker Louis Daukas – would be ready to go regardless of the defensive alignment.

“All of us knew that we were losing pretty much all of the experienced players on our team,” Daukas said. “We were in the weight room and running during the winter. The season never really ended for us because we knew we had to make up for our lack of experience. And I feel like we did that.”

Last year Cape lost at home in the regional final to Wells, which won the Class C title.

“I don’t think anyone is very concerned about what happened last year, especially since the team is about 95 percent different from last year,” Houle said.

This season Class C underwent dramatic realignment. Wells is now dominating in Class D (after doing its own impressive job of replacing nearly 20 seniors), while Leavitt, Gardiner and York moved down from Class B.

The Capers never have won a state title. In 2009 they were Western Class B champs and lost to Leavitt 35-21 in the state game.

Houle said it’s too soon to start talking about a state title.

“I don’t think it’s the best motivation in the world to always play football with just a championship on your mind,” Houle said. “If you can get there, then that’s great and you can start thinking about it. I think you should just play every game the best you can.”