As Central Catholic approaches its second-round matchup with Mansfield Madison in the Division II football playoffs tomorrow in Tiffin, it s obvious the 10th-ranked Fighting Irish (10-1) have developed a diverse offensive attack.
Players like senior tailback Chris Willis (250 rushes, 1,294 yards, 17 touchdowns), junior wideout Dane Sanzenbacher (51 catches, 899 yards, 6 TDs) and senior quarterback Kevin Jansen (110 of 163 passing, 1,370 yards, 12 TDs) grab the spotlight at the marquee positions.
Each realizes, however, that their work has been made increasingly easier throughout the season because of the improvement of another less-heralded group of players.
Central s offensive line was still finding its groove three games into the season, but has gelled since to help propel the Irish to their first City League football championship since 1982.
The line played a significant role in Central s 24-10 first-round playoff win over Tiffin Columbian, and hopes to do the same against the 8-3 Rams.
Going in, starting four juniors, I didn t know how good we were going to be up there, sixth-year Irish coach Greg Dempsey said. In two of the first three games, we didn t even rush for 100 yards. We managed to win one of those just because we played good defense.
Then, in the fourth week against Start, they just started communicating better with each other at the line of scrimmage and calling out the blocking schemes or changing them to fit the defense.
They were all on the same page. That was the biggest thing.
All six of them work very hard to help make us as diverse as we are in our passing game. We do a lot of different things.
The Irish front is anchored by 6-2, 245-pound guard Mike Starkey, a third-year starter, who played guard as a sophomore, moved to tackle last year and back to guard this season.
Mike is one of the best pullers we ve had in our program, Dempsey said. Our trap and our bootleg packages are the biggest part of our offense, especially in the second half of the season. A lot of it is because of him.
Starkey has also doubled for two seasons on defense, alternating between end and tackle. He prefers offense because it s more structured.
I think it s one of the most valuable parts of the team, Starkey said. If we can control the line of scrimmage, that s always a deciding factor.
A big part of our improvement was the coaching we ve gotten the past three years. [Former assistant] Chad McCarthy and coach [Tom] Santoro taught us all the basics. And, it s a whole new look this year having [offensive coordinator] Mike Donnelly working with us. In terms of football, and life, he s one of the smartest people I ve ever met.
The other veteran members are 6-1, 240-pound senior Luke Staebell, a second-year starter who moved from guard to tackle this season, and 6-0, 215-pound junior tight end Chris Dominiak, also in his second varsity season.
It s fun, Staebell said of playing tackle. I love it. Wherever I can help out the team, I m open to the opportunity.
I think we re just tighter as a unit now. We communicate a lot better and we have a feel for each other. We know where we re going to go and we trust each other. There was maybe more talent on the line last year, but we work better as a group this year.
Staebell also backs up Starkey on the defensive line, and Dominiak is a starter at defensive end.
Chris is one of the smartest players we have, and it shows on the field, Dempsey said. He rarely makes the same mistake twice.
Three other juniors round out the group, with 6-0, 285-pound John Orta at tackle; 6-0, 240-pound Zach Boling at center, and 6-0, 250-pound Alexander Scotland at guard.
John is good at a lot of things and he s one of our biggest surprises this year, Dempsey said. He s also one of the team s hardest workers.
Zach is our self-made man. He decided last summer he was going to be our center, and he worked out relentlessly to do it. He never even snapped in the shotgun before this year, and now he makes a lot of the calls up front.
Alex is our steady Eddie. He does everything and he does it well, and you never hear much from him. Talk about a kid dealing well with adversity, early in the season his family s house burned down. They lost everything, and the way this young man has handled that situation shows a lot of character.
His jersey is No. 64 now. He even lost his uniform in the fire. Everything burned up, but he told me, Coach, those were only possessions. Everyone s still alive.
The collective work of its offensive line has helped Central churn out 317 yards per game and average 27 points per contest.
Since the start of the season we ve become more united, Boling said. We re close. We re like brothers now. None of us look at each other as being better than another. We all realize that we can t do it without the man next to us.
The linemen gain their pride from the end product.
Our reward is the big play, Boling said. When we see Willis run for 30 or 40 yards, or see Sanzenbacher catch a touchdown pass, we re excited. There s no better feeling for us, because we know we contributed to that.
You don t get a lot of glory, Staebell said, but it can still be fun.