The Blade/Lori King
The biggest high school football game of the season in northwest Ohio is set for Friday night when Whitmer travels to play Central Catholic. Both teams are 9-0 overall and 6-0 in the Three Rivers Athletic Conference, and an outright conference championship is on the line.
It is arguably the most highly anticipated regular-season high school football game in Toledo in more than 50 years. Gallagher Stadium seats 6,500 spectators, and standing customers may possibly lift the total attendance to 7,000 or 8,000.
For the last seven years, either Central (2005-08 City League) or Whitmer (2009-10 CL, 2011 TRAC) have finished as league champion. In games played between them the last 10 years, the Irish and Panthers have each won five times, making this matchup Toledo's hottest football rivalry.
Central's marquee players are junior quarterback DeShone Kizer, senior running back Amir Edwards and senior tight end Keith Towbridge on offense, and hero back Jayme Thompson on defense. Kizer is a Big Ten-level recruit, Towbridge has committed to Louisville, and Thompson to Ohio State.
Whitmer's standout has been senior quarterback Nick Holley, who has dazzled foes with his run-pass ability. The Panthers also feature University of Toledo-bound defensive tackle Marquise Moore, and leading tacklers Jack Linch and Nate Holley (Nick's twin brother) at linebacker.
Although both teams are already locked into postseason playoff berths, because they compete in separate divisions, there will be no chance at a rematch.
Central is considered a legitimate contender for a Division II state championship. Whitmer, which advanced to the Division I state semifinals the past two years, is expected to make another strong charge for at least a third straight regional championship.
Here are some thoughts from the coaches and players:
Coach Jerry Bell: "I thought we were going to be good. Obviously, the players have continued to buy into getting better each day, and taking each rep trying to do that. That's a product of our program and what our coaching staff tries to instill in them each day. Our senior class has been in a lot of big games. We've played [Cleveland] St. Ignatius and [Lakewood] St. Ed's, Massillon Washington, and Wadsworth and Canton McKinley. To win, we're going to have to execute at a high level, make sure that we don't turn the ball over, limit our penalties, try to generate some three-and-outs, and make sure our special-teams play is at a high level."
Quarterback Nick Holley: "We're going to have to do everything right. We're going to have to block well, run hard, pass, catch. Central is a great team, and it's going to be a tough one. We have something to prove and we have not proven it yet."
Linebacker Jack Linch: "It's a whole new season. It's ton of fun to play [in front of big crowd], and great that you can tell people that you did that. But, we're just going to go out and play football, and it doesn't matter whether it's in front of 10 or 10,000."
Linebacker/receiver Nate Holley: "We're very excited. We've been thinking about this game all year. We know it's going to be a big one. We're going to do what we do and play to the best of our ability. It's for the TRAC title, it's for a home playoff game, and there's a lot on the line."
Defensive tackle Marquise Moore: "The atmosphere is going to be fun. We just need to keep playing like we have all year. We've watched film and their offensive line really gets off the ball. They've got a lot of weapons."
Safety Marcus Elliott: "We have confidence in each other on defense. If I miss a tackle, I know somebody's going to back me up. We lost a lot of great players from last year's team, and we wanted to come out this year and make a statement that we weren't as bad as people thought we were going to be this year."
Coach Greg Dempsey: "It's huge, playing for the TRAC title. We had a nice little run in the City League [four titles, 2005-08] before they had their current run. Our kids want to get that back and win a league championship. It's been a battle between these two teams the last few years, and there's a lot of respect in our program for Whitmer. They've really done a great job the last few years.To win, we need to move the ball consistently, even when we're not scoring points. We need to score when we get the ball in good field position. We need to hopefully cause a few turnovers, and special teams could be something that could be a bonus for us."
Quarterback DeShone Kizer: "I'm very excited to play in front of a crowd that large, but I have to stay level-headed. We're going to try to go into this game with the same mind-set we've had in the last nine weeks, and hopefully we're victorious like we have been the last nine."
Running back Amir Edwards: "It's going to take an outstanding performance by our offensive line, something they've done every week. It feels good to be going in with a great team, and getting a chance to play in something like this is great."
Hero back Jayme Thompson: "On defense, you really just have to know your part. If everyone plays their role, we feel we have a good chance to win it. I'm very confident in our offense being able to score, and if the defense can make a few stops, I feel we can have a good outcome."
Tight end/defensive end Keith Towbridge: "We just take everything day by day. No changes. I'm ready to play. We have to play as hard as we can. That's the key. If we all do our assignments right, we should be fine."
Safety Mitch Cochell: "This will definitely be the biggest game I've ever been a part of in my career. Our goals are to win the TRAC championship and to stay undefeated. It would put us on the right step going into the playoffs. We need to stay focused and keep doing what we're doing."