Central coach Greg Dempsey, left, would like to take the Irish Knight from St. Francis coach Dick Cromwell.
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The fate of the free world will not be decided tonight when state-ranked City League rivals Central Catholic and St. Francis de Sales meet at the Glass Bowl.
But as far as local high school football history is concerned, few matchups over the years have been as intriguing, as significant or as hyped as this 7 p.m. showdown.
Fans of both schools plus a segment of the general public have been pointing to this game since late last season, when eventual Division II state champion St. Francis topped Central 16-8 for the CL crown in the regular-season finale, then toppled the Irish again 31-0 two weeks later in the second round of the playoffs before a 7,000-plus crowd at Waite. A bigger crowd may attend tonight.
What's at stake?
1. The City League championship.
2. The top spot in the Division II computer playoff ratings (Central is currently second, St. Francis third in Region 6).
3. A guaranteed first-round home playoff game.
4. The right to take home the “Irish Knight” trophy.
5. A higher rung in the state poll.
6. Local bragging rights.
7. For the winner, perhaps even an edge in steering future football talent in their direction from the junior high ranks.
By around 9:30 tonight, barring overtime, much of this will be decided.
On paper, this game appears to boil down to a classic battle between Central's high-powered offense and St. Francis' no-quarter defense.
“The strengths of the two teams are certainly going to be exciting to watch going against each other,” said 19th-year St. Francis coach Dick Cromwell. “Of course, we'd like to be able to control the ball on offense so they don't have as many chances.”
“You figure something has to give, because they both can't have it their way,” third-year Central coach Greg Dempsey said of each team's strengths.
The unbeaten and third-ranked Irish (8-0, 4-0 CL), led by tailback Derek Barksdale (216 rushes, 1,461 yards, 21 touchdowns) and big-play flanker/ cornerback Ryne Robinson (42 catches, 717 yards, 12 total TDs), have outscored their eight opponents 304-126, an average of 38-16 per game.
“It's a big game for Central Catholic any time we play St. Francis or St. John's,” Dempsey said, “but this is an especially big game for our kids because they want to show they're worthy of the hype.”
Dempsey has led the Irish to a 25-6 overall record after the team had gone 24-28 the prior five seasons.
“This is also great for Northwest Ohio,” Dempsey said. “I don't know the last time two teams were ranked this high. For us, beating St. Francis and winning a City championship are missing pieces of the puzzle.”
Central has not beaten St. Francis since 1995. The Knights have won eight in a row, 10 of 13 in the last 10 years, and hold a 32-18-1 edge in the all-time series, which began in 1959.
St. Francis has won four straight CL titles, seven of the last 10, and 11 overall. The Knights bypassed league championship games in 1980 and 1984 to compete in the state playoffs.
“Right now, for football in Northwest Ohio, St. Francis is the measuring stick,” Dempsey conceded, “and they deserve to be.”
Central has not won a league championship since 1982, a year in which St. Francis defeated the Irish 17-13 during the regular season. Before that, 1967 was Central's last CL title, earned by an 8-7 win over St. Francis in a quagmire at the Glass Bowl in the Shoe Bowl championship game. The Irish have won or shared eight CL titles overall.
Earlier this week, John Ginter, a star back on Central's 1962 state championsip team, phoned Dempsey, whom he'd met at a golf outing last year.
“John asked me if there was anything he could do to help us this week,” Dempsey said. “I told him, `Yes. Find the fountain of youth and suit up for us Friday night.'”
Ginter and many of the other '62 champions - they were state poll winners, before the current playoff system - will hold a 40-year reunion at the game tonight.
Cromwell, 156-55-1 at St. Francis, bids for career win No. 200 tonight. He is 199-89-2 in 27 years as a head coach.
“All of those things are in the back of your mind,” Cromwell said of the various spoils at stake, “but you have to focus on trying to win a football game first. All that other stuff ends up being looked at afterwards, and the way you look at it depends on whether you won or lost.
“With all of that stuff on the line, it adds up to being as big a game in the City as I've ever been a part of.”
With Robinson as the main target, Central has passed for 919 yards and rushed for 1,960, which computes to 360 yards of total offense per game. A pleasant surprise for Dempsey has been the poise and efficiency of sophomore quarterback Dan Amato, who has completed 57 of 88 passes for 912 yards and 10 TDs with just one interception.
“That's what makes them so good,” Cromwell said of Central's run-pass combination. “You try to stop all facets and it kind of puts you in a bind. It's always a guessing game but, with their weapons, it's more dangerous if you guess wrong.”
As for the sixth-ranked Knights (7-1, 4-0), whose strength comes more in their large number of veteran senior holdovers from the state-title squad, the figures are more modest. St. Francis, which has outscored foes 187-64 (23 to 8 a game) has thrown for 755 yards and rushed for 1,334, a total offense rate of 261 yards a contest.
But the St. Francis defense has been downright oppressive, led up front by defensive end Steve Fender and tackle Ryan Lamy, the twin linebacking pair of John and Jordan Lonchyna, and an agile secondary that has intercepted 17 passes.
St. Francis' only loss of the season was a 29-28 setback to Huber Heights Wayne on Sept. 7, after the Knights blew a 28-10 third-quarter lead.