Nearly seven years ago to the day, Central Catholic capped a state championship football season at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium in Massillon, taking the Division II playoff final with a dramatic 31-29 victory over Canfield on Dec. 2, 2005.
Fighting Irish head coach Greg Dempsey, who guided that dream season, brings his latest Central team back to that same venue tonight in Massillon, where the fourth-ranked Irish (13-1) will take on defending D-II state champion Trotwood-Madison (12-2) in a 7 p.m. state final.
The ninth-ranked Rams of coach Maurice Douglass are playing in their third straight D-II title game, having lost to Maple Heights (45-33) in the 2010 final, and beaten Avon (42-24) last year led by running back Israel Green, who rushed 35 times for 326 yards and six touchdowns.
The Irish have reached the state playoffs each season since their 2005 championship, but this is the first time since that year that they have advanced beyond a regional semifinal.
In 2005, the Irish were led by junior receiver/defensive back Dane Sanzenbacher, who would later go on to star at Ohio State, become the Buckeyes’ team MVP in 2010, and reach the NFL with the Chicago Bears.
Sanzenbacher emerged as a star during that 2005 playoff run, scoring nine touchdowns and intercepting six passes during Central’s five-game playoff trail.
In the title game, he scored on a memorable 47-yard hook-and-ladder play down the left sideline, taking a lateral from Xavier Graciani, who had caught a nine-yard pass from quarterback Kevin Jansen.
That play, 30 seconds before halftime, gave Central a 17-16 lead it would not relinquish.
After halftime, Jansen hit Sanzenbacher on a 60-yard TD, and Irish running back Chris Willis scored on a six-yard run.
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Sanzenbacher later sealed things with an interception at the Central 22 with 43 seconds remaining to preserve the 31-29 state-championship win.
Today, senior running back Amir Edwards, junior quarterback DeShone Kizer, senior tight end/defensive end Keith Towbridge, senior All-Ohio defensive tackle Jon Perrin, and senior All-Ohio defensive back Jayme Thompson hope to factor in significantly to what Central hopes will be a second state football playoff championship for the school.
Central’s only loss came in week 10 of the regular season, when the Irish were blanked 42-0 by visiting Whitmer in a game between unbeatens that decided the Three Rivers Athletic Conference championship.
Third-ranked Whitmer (14-0) will play for the Division I state championship Saturday at 7 p.m. against seven-time state champion Cincinnati Moeller (11-3) at Fawcett Stadium in Canton.
First-year coach Jerry Bell’s Panthers are led offensively by All-Ohio senior quarterback Nick Holley, senior running backs Tre Sterritt and Me’Gail Frisch, and junior receiver Chris Boykin.
Whitmer’s stingy defense, which has yielded less than 11 points per game, is paced by All-Ohio linebacker Jack Linch, fellow senior linebackers Nate Holley and Devin Thomas, senior defensive tackles Marquise Moore and JoeNathan Mays, and junior defensive back Marcus Elliott.
The Panthers, who lost in the 2010 and 2011 D-I state semifinals, reached the first state championship game in school history by pounding seventh-ranked Mentor (62-34) last Saturday at Mansfield.
Central advanced to its D-II final by beating Aurora 20-13 last Friday at Huron.
NOTE: Central Catholic will hold a pep rally today from 11:15 to 11:45 a.m. in the front gym. The football players will be dismissed immediately after the pep rally, and the rest of the students will be dismissed at 12:30 p.m. … On Saturday, Central will honor the football team at 3 p.m. in the school’s Sullivan Center. This event will take place regardless of the outcome of the state championship game.