The Irish Knight is a valuable possession for Central coach Greg Dempsey, left, and Dick Cromwell of St. Francis.
After residing in a trophy case at St. Francis de Sales on West Bancroft for eight years, the Irish Knight statue finally relocated to Cherry Street last October when Central Catholic edged the City League-champion Knights 7-6 at the Glass Bowl.
The question now is how long can sixth-year coach Greg Dempsey and his Fighting Irish (5-1, 3-0) keep the little guy in their own trophy case?
The 47th Irish Knight battle is set for 7 o'clock tonight at the Glass Bowl.
Beyond the eight regular-season (Irish Knight) losses to veteran coach Dick Cromwell's Knights (3-3, 3-0), Central also dropped three postseason games to St. Francis during that span, an overall losing streak of 11.
One was the 1996 Hall of Fame charity game, the others Division II playoff contests in 2001 and '02.
"That win was huge," Dempsey said of last Oct. 29. "Not only for the football program, but for the entire school and our community."
Once a back-and-forth City League rivalry, the series began tilting heavily in St. Francis' favor in 1988 with Knight wins in both the regular season and in the Shoe Bowl City League championship game.
Between 1959, when the series began, and 1987, the Irish Knight trophy was etched with 14 wins for each team a 0-0 tie in 1963. Including three Shoe Bowl games to that point (1967,
1968 and 1986), St. Francis held a slim 16-15-1 overall edge in the rivalry.
Since then, the Knights are 14-3 in the Irish Knight battle, and 5-1 in postseason games against Central, including Division II playoff wins in 2001 and '02.
Also, since Central's last City League title in 1982, St. Francis has collected 12. St. Francis leads the Irish Knight series 28-17-1, and 35-19-1 overall.
But, has the pendulum swung?
When St. Francis gave up the Irish Knight last year, that started a five-game losing skid. The Knights lost to Canton
GlenOak (25-7) in the playoffs, then opened 2005 with non-league losses to Columbus DeSales (42-7), Birmingham Brother Rice (27-3) and Cincinnati Moeller (17-0).
The four-time defending CL champions, a preseason pick of league coaches to add a fifth this year, suddenly appeared vulnerable. The first two losses this year saw poor tackling, no running game and little emotion.
"I didn't think we'd be as bad as we were those first couple games," Cromwell said, "and I'm not sure we're where we need to be to be a good team yet."
But Cromwell saw some fight return in the Moeller game, then watched his team take CL wins over Whitmer (20-3), Start (49-14) and Bowsher (64-6).
"From Game 1 to Game 3, they got better every week, and the last three weeks you've seen what they're capable of doing," Dempsey said.
"They've got the running game going, they mix the run and the pass well and, on defense, they're shutting people down. They're a good team right now."
The 3-0 CL mark - albeit against teams with a combined 2-16 overall record - puts the Knights in position to seek consecutive title No. 5.
"The schedule helped," Cromwell said of the turnaround. "That's a big part of it, and I guess we got better offensively. On defense we've gotten better with some personnel changes, and with the kids just getting better at tackling as they got more reps."
The defense has allowed just 10 points per game the past four weeks, and the Knights' trademark tailback-oriented offense found a spark with senior Cody Enos (109 carries, 530 yards, 7 TDs). Also, senior quarterback Tom Joseph has proved a viable pass-run threat in his first year as a starter.
"This is a good week to find out which of the three-week stretches the Knights really are," Cromwell said, "the first three or the last three."
Central, which had won three straight times over St. Francis (twice in 1994) before the 11-game drought, hopes to start another winning streak.
"I think winning last year helped us a lot mentally," Dempsey said. "In 2003 we had a rough year, but we went to overtime [16-13 loss] with them and just came up short.
"That helped us get over a big mental hurdle. Last year we just got better every week, and winning that game definitely gave us some confidence for this year. When you get close so many times and you finally get over the hump, it changes your psyche.
"There's a lot on the line this week. We don't want an empty space on the bus [with no Irish Knight on board] on the way home."
Central has been paced offensively by senior tailback Chris Willis (117 carries, 518 yards), senior quarterback Kevin Jansen (68 of 94 passing, 861 yards, 7 TDs), and junior receiver Dane Sanzenbacher (37 catches, 551 yards).
"We have to be able to run the football," Dempsey said. "You can't let them turn you into a one-dimensional team. If we can run the ball, everything builds off of that."
On defense, Central has allowed opponents just 10.3 points per game through six contests, with the only setback a 20-14 loss to Fremont Ross in Week 2. That defense is led by senior linebacker Ryan Brown.
"They've got a bunch of good athletes who play the pass well and can also come up and tackle well," Cromwell said. "And Ryan Brown is as good a linebacker as I've seen around here in a few years."
A boost for the Knights is the return to two-way play of standout senior fullback/linebacker Brian Bingle, who missed three games with a high ankle sprain and returned (offense only) last week.
"I think they're back to normal," Dempsey said of the Knights. "They can hurt you with the deep pass routes, Bingle and Enos can break off big chunks of yardage, and their quarterback has done a great job. He's capable of making the big plays when they need 'em.
"Until somebody beats St. Francis, they're still the champs."
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