With a 4-4 overall record and just two games left in the regular season, time is running out on four-time defending City League football champion St. Francis de Sales.
Veteran coach Dick Cromwell's Knights (4-1 CL), the preseason pick of league coaches to win a fifth straight title, started the year with three nonleague losses prior to CL play.
After that start put a damper on St. Francis' hopes for a seventh straight appearance in the state playoffs, winning a seventh City crown in eight years still remained a reasonable possibility.
A 24-13 CL loss to Central Catholic two weeks ago, however, likely extinguished the Knights' league-title hopes as well.
There is a remote chance that St. Francis could salvage a CL crown, and that glimmer of hope starts with tonight's 7 o'clock battle against unbeaten arch-rival St. John's Jesuit at the Glass Bowl.
"Right now we're just focusing on trying to win a big game against our rival," Cromwell said, "so any disappointment about the season isn't a big part of our thinking."
The Titans (8-0, 5-0) are ranked No. 7 in the latest Division I state poll, rated No. 2 in the current Region 2 computer points standings, and are gunning for the first unbeaten regular season in school history.
At stake for fourth-year coach Doug Pearson's Titans tonight is a chance to clinch a first-round home playoff game. Beyond that, with a win, St. John's can help set up a possible Week 10 championship clash of 6-0 CL teams versus Central (7-1, 5-0) next Friday night at the Glass Bowl.
The Titans' last City title came in 1996, when they posted a school-best 9-1 regular season (6-0 CL). Central's last CL crown was in 1982.
At stake for Pearson, personally, is a chance to end his head-to-head drought against St. Francis and Cromwell. Pearson is 0-3 versus the Knights while at St. John's, his alma mater, and was 0-6 against the Knights in seven seasons (1995-2001) as Start's head coach.
"It's always a special game," Pearson said, "but this year we have a lot more at stake. This game is huge."
St. John's reached the Division II state semifinals in 2003, the Titans' furthest advancement in just Pearson's second season. But he won't feel relief until he knows victory over St. Francis.
"Yes, it sticks in my craw that my teams have never beaten them," Pearson said, "but not too many other teams around here have done real well against them either.
"When I was at Start, for the most part, we were just outmanned. But, now that I'm at St. John's, not beating them is a little different. If it doesn't happen [tonight], I'm going to be one unhappy son of a gun."
The Knights will need something close to a miracle to emerge as league champion.
First, they need wins over St. John's and Clay combined with a St. John's win next Friday over Central, plus a series of upsets among the league's other teams in the final two games.
If Central wins tonight at Whitmer, then beats St. John's, Central wins the title. If Central beats Whitmer and loses to St. John's, the most likely scenario is a four-way tie atop the standings at 6-1 between St. John's, Central, St. Francis, and Rogers, with the points race most likely ending in that same order.
If the Knights do win out, their best chance comes with Central losing its final two games. But St. Francis would still need several upsets to occur in the other CL games to climb ahead of St. John's in that scenario. A two-way tie in standings points goes to the head-to-head winner.
In most past seasons, this St. Francis/St. John's rivalry played out as a smash-mouth battle between two I-formation offenses. If a team was behind late and needed to pass to catch up, or to advance the ball quickly during a final drive, the prospects weren't good.
But this year Pearson added a new twist with the installation of a spread-option scheme, which has provided the Titans with more pass-run balance and a better chance to rally in the late going.
St. John's overcame a 17-point, third-quarter deficit to edge Findlay 42-38 in Week 1, and scored late to win 20-17 at Columbus DeSales in Week 2.
"He's changed formations," Cromwell said of Pearson, "but he still would like to run the ball down your throat. They're just doing it in a different way."
Titan junior quarterback Sean Patterson has been a double threat, completing 89 of 170 passes for 1,215 yards and six touchdowns, and carrying 71 times for 441 yards and seven TDs.
Senior running back DeAndre Ware has been the primary ground threat, rushing 177 times for 1,055 yards and scoring 12 TDs. Jake Bombrys (22 catches, 387 yards, 5 TDs), Jalil Carter (16 catches, 294 yards, 6 TDs), and Ross Hartwig (21 catches, 233 yards, 1 TD) are Patterson's top targets. St. John's has outscored its eight foes 282-100.
For the Knights' less-balanced offense, senior tailback Cody Enos leads the attack with 907 yards on 175 carries with 12 TDs. St. Francis has outscored its opposition 184-140 overall, including 174-54 in CL play.
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