Panthers show mettle after switch


Just after 6:30 Friday evening, while Central Catholic was staging its pre-game Senior Night festivities, the most brilliant of rainbows, so rare at dusk, formed a dome-like arc over Gallagher Stadium.

Symbolically, the Whitmer Panthers probably should have gone home right then and there. Good thing they don’t believe in leprechauns.

Alas, there was no pot o’ gold waiting at the end for the Fighting Irish.

It was hyped as the biggest high school football game in Toledo in five decades.

Maybe so. It sure wasn’t the best.

Sometimes something lives up to the hype, sometimes it doesn’t.

Whitmer saw to it that this one lacked much drama. Or maybe Central saw to it. It depends who you credit or blame for four first-half Irish turnovers.

The Panthers rolled to a 21-0 halftime lead — it was 28-0 three plays into the second half — and won the Three Rivers Athletic Conference championship game 42-0.

Both teams entered with 9-0 records and both are considered capable of traveling a far piece, maybe even the distance, in the state playoffs that open next weekend.

Only one of them was going to win Friday and finish the regular season undefeated.

That was Whitmer.

Nick Holley drove the offense; Nate Holley set the tone on a shutdown defense, and the Panthers captured a league title for the fourth straight season.

Central entered the game ranked No. 1 among the state’s Division II teams. Whitmer was 5th in Division I.

That’s about as big as it gets in Toledo prep football, especially on the final Friday night of the regular season.

Cherry Street was near-gridlock for a couple hours leading up to kickoff. The 6,500-seat stadium was packed, probably 7,500-plus on hand with standing room, and the joint was jumping from the start.

Soon, though, only the visiting side was jumping.

“It was pretty neat … until kickoff,” said Central coach Greg Dempsey.

A broken play and then some broken tackles by receiver Chris Boykin produced a 29-yard scoring play that put the Panthers up 7-0 on their first possession.

Then the Irish started fumbling and Central quarterback DeShone Kizer threw his first pick of the year and Whitmer took advantage of every opportunity.

“We haven’t had four turnovers all season, then we had four in one half and it snowballed,” Dempsey said. “You can’t do that against a team of Whitmer’s caliber.”

Boykin had a big catch to open the second half and Nick Holley did the rest himself to make it 28-0 in the blink of an eye.

Central countered with a 17-play drive that covered 7-plus minutes, but the Irish couldn’t convert on fourth down deep in Whitmer territory and that was it.

“Our kids came out and played lights out and that didn’t really surprise me,” said Whitmer coach Jerry Bell. “I had a great feeling all week. Our kids have been in big games before. And we’re not done. Neither is Central. I shook hands with their kids and told them to go get that D-II state title.

"We’ll be shooting for the other one.”

For Bell, a one-time Panther player and a longtime assistant, a 10-0 season as a rookie head coach is like a fairy tale. Some might suggest he inherited a program that was flying high and did little more than keep it in the air.

Don’t believe it.

The Panthers opened the season not only with a new head coach, but with a new offensive coordinator, a new defensive coordinator, and a new quarterback, among several key players.

Dempsey briefly left a post-game interview to have a word with that quarterback, Nick Holley, who passed and ran for a combined 248 yards and four touchdowns.

“He took a team that was supposed to be third [in the TRAC] and put them on his shoulders and here they are,” Dempsey said. “Whitmer is really good.”

That’s all the hype that was left at the end of this night.

Contact Blade sports columnistDave Hackenberg at:dhack@theblade.comor 419-724-6398.