Central Catholic's Nikai Roberts leaps over a pile deep in Clay territory.
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With St. Francis de Sales having secured its fourth straight City League football championship last night at Bowsher, former contenders Clay and Central Catholic directed their focus toward another prize - valuable playoff points.
Those went to visiting Central (7-2, 4-2 CL), which took advantage of some Eagle miscues to get rolling, then rode its defense to a 24-0 victory at Clay Memorial Stadium.
Although Clay (7-2, 4-2) actually topped the Irish 188-139 in total offense, two special-teams errors, three turnovers, and 12 penalties totaling 95 yards all combined to derail the Eagles.
Central was fifth and Clay sixth in the Division II, Region 6 playoff chase coming in, but any chance Clay had at making this pivotal battle close unraveled in the first half.
The initial blow came after a 36-yard punt from A.J. Achter was returned 76 yards for a touchdown by Central's Dane Sanzenbacher 4:46 into the game.
"When you come into somebody else's home field, as hostile as this place can be, you have to do something to try to quiet the crowd," Central coach Greg Dempsey said. "Dane got the big punt return, and then they fumble the snap on the punt and we take advantage of it.
Clay's Nick Sondergeld can't escape Central's defense.
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"Special teams is the way it happened. We were very fortunate, I can't say we weren't. But we took advantage of those opportunities tonight."
On Clay's next possession, Achter was unable to pick up a poor snap, which bounced over his grasp. Matt Brock tackled Achter, putting Central 12 yards from the end zone.
Three plays later, Irish fullback Nick Boyle rammed over from the 1, and Dan Amato's PAT made it 14-0 with 3:29 left in the first quarter.
"Thanks to their mistakes, we put some points on the board," Amato said. "This was a big win. I think we're going to get into the playoffs with this win, so it was a big boost for us."
Clay's first possession of the second quarter also ended poorly when a Brent Graham pass was intercepted by Central's Ryan Brown and returned 27 yards to the Eagle 42.
Central advanced to the 31, then got 15 more on an Amato-to-Sanzenbacher completion. Boyle capped the drive with a three-yard TD run for a 21-0 lead 6:51 before halftime.
The Irish utilized one more Clay error - a Tom Marruquin fumble - cashing in with Amato's 33-yard field goal with 0:00.7 left in the half.
"Against a good team you can't give 'em anything, and we gave 'em two," Clay coach Jeff Lee said. "We had two breakdowns. On the coverage, we didn't stay in our lanes. Then we got a bad snap on the punt.
"It started out that way and it just continued to snowball in the first half. That's too good a team to spot 14 points. Then we get into a shouting match and get penalties and we were in total disarray. I take nothing away from Central. That was a very good ballclub. They just beat us in all aspects of the game."
After the break, the Irish defense looked toward recording its second straight shutout. It blanked Bowsher 20-0 last week.
"Our defense came out real jacked up, wanting to get another shutout," said Boyle, who doubles at linebacker. "Clay's got a real good running game, and the goal was to shut that running game down and force 'em to pass. I think we did that.
"When we got those turnovers we really made the most of them."
The Eagles moved the ball after halftime, holding a 15:26-to-8:34 edge in time of possession. But Clay never advanced beyond the Irish 20.
Eagles running back Nick Sondergeld rushed 26 times for 98 yards, and Graham completed 12 of 24 passes for 81 yards. Boyle had 43 yards on nine carries, and Amato was 8-of-12 passing for 78 yards.
The Irish had no turnovers.