Neil Mitchell (4), Anthony Oliver (8) and Aaron Peterson (48) may not have received as much recognition as some of their teammates, but they played key roles in Central Catholic's success, and Friday's victory tasted very sweet.
When Central Catholic secured its first state football playoff championship Friday night, edging Canfield 31-29 at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium in Massillon, it was the culmination of a magical 14-1 season for sixth-year head coach Greg Dempsey's Fighting Irish.
Many players and coaches contributed to the triumph as Central became the City League's third state playoff champion. With a bit of the proverbial Luck of the Irish sprinkled in, this team of destiny also blended more tangible factors like effort, preparation and cohesiveness into Central's first CL title in 23 years and the school's first playoff crown.
Here are 10 reasons Central was able to win its state championship:
1. GREAT DANE: Championship teams usually need a big-play maker, and for Central that was 6-0, 170-pound junior Dane Sanzenbacher. In 10 regular season games, Sanzenbacher, a receiver/cornerback, played well enough to be selected City League's player of the year. In five playoff games, he was arguably Ohio's postseason player of the year.
He caught 20 passes in the playoffs for 603 yards and eight TDs, made 29 tackles, and had six interceptions, returning one 97 yards for a TD. In the semis against Dayton Carroll, he had two fourth-quarter TD catches to twice bring the Irish from behind. In the title game, he scored on a 39-yard hook-and-lateral play and a 60-yard catch to put Central up for good, and ended the game with his 11th interception of the season.
In short, Great Dane was a one-man highlight reel.
2. WALKING WOUNDED: Resilience and determination were virtues evident in All-Ohio linebacker Ryan Brown (121 tackles) and all-district tailback Chris Willis (295 rushes, 1,439 yards, 20 TDs).
Brown went out with a torn ACL in Central's first-round win over Tiffin Columbian, and missed the second playoff game. He returned, with a knee brace, for wins over Avon Lake, Dayton Carroll and Canfield, recording eight tackles in the final.
"It went pretty good," Brown said of playing with the injury. "I survived it because I had to come out with my boys and win a state championship."
Willis sustained a hip flexor injury in the CL-clinching win over St. John's in Week 10, and was unable to practice throughout the playoffs, instead rehabbing so he could contribute in all five playoff games.
Chris Willis, left, and Neil Mitchell celebrate during the fourth quarter of Friday's state championship game. Willis and Mitchell shared the tailback job after Willis was slowed by an injury.
3. NEVER QUIT: Central rallied three times from seven-point deficits in a 24-21 state semifinal win over Dayton Carroll, and from a 14-3 gap in the final victory over Canfield. Dempsey raved about his players' refusal to quit, on a game or even on a single play.
The biggest of those came in the state final. Ahead 14-10, Canfield QB Frank Ross lunged within inches of the goal line trying to extend the lead. But Irish safety Kevin Boyle stopped Ross, and linebacker Lee Marquette jarred the ball from the QB's arm just before he crossed the goal line. Boyle recovered the fumble at the 1.
"That kind of epitomizes the fight in this team," Dempsey said. "It would have been easy for Lee just to slow down and let that kid go in. But he pops him, the guy coughs the ball up, and they ended up getting a safety instead of a touchdown. Look at the scoreboard. That made all the difference in the world.
"If you had to single out one play that turned the game around, that would be it."
4. MR. PERFECT: Brodie Wagener, Central's 5-10, 165-pound senior kicker/punter, converted all 21 of his extra-point kicks and all three of his field-goal tries in the postseason.
Wagener had his biggest moment in the state semifinals when he calmly booted a game-winning 26-yard field goal with 30 seconds remaining in the 24-21 win over Dayton Carroll.
5. END OF THE LINE: Part of a superb defensive unit, 6-1, 230-pound senior defensive end Anthony Oliver, a first-team All-Ohioan, was a menace to enemy offenses in the playoffs with 46 tackles. He closed his high school career with 12 stops in the title game.
"This is a game where you've got to bring your all," Oliver said of the finals. "It was my last high school game, and I knew I had to bring 110 percent."
6. OVERACHIEVER: In the preseason, 5-11, 165-pound senior Kevin Jansen earned the starting quarterback job just before the end of two-a-days.
Jansen - who by his own admission won't win many style points with his passing delivery, or any distance contests with his throws - more than made up for his lack of raw physical skills with superb decision-making, excellent technique, and a knack for delivering passes on the mark at the most crucial times.
He completed 143 of 224 passes (64 percent) for 2,016 yards, with 22 TD passes and just three interceptions. Jansen set Division II championship-game records for passing yards (199), and TD passes (three).
"Coach [Mike] Donnelly and coach Dempsey had faith in me all year," Jansen said. "They put me in the right positions, and I just did the best I could."
7. UNSUNG HEROES: There were many visible stars in Central's title run, but several less-heralded players also delivered key plays when called upon. Senior cornerback Neil Mitchell filled in at tailback when starter Chris Willis was slowed by injury. He contributed 305 rushing yards on 68 playoff carries, including four TDs.
Sophomore linebacker Greg Hammond (101 tackles) came up with a pivotal interception, his first of the season, just before halftime in the title game. That pickoff, near midfield, set up Central's go-ahead TD for a 17-16 lead at halftime.
Junior tight end/defensive end Chris Dominiak executed a key play in another role with 11:37 left in the title game. With the Irish lined up in punt formation at the Canfield 36, Dominiak, the up-back, took the snap on a fake punt and completed a 17-yard pass to Sanzenbacher for a first down. That set up Central's final TD, and what proved to be the game-winning points.
"We've been like that all year," Dominiak said. "It's always been someone else every game stepping up, whether it's Dane or Jansen or Neil [Mitchell] coming in for Chris Willis. It was always someone different stepping up big.
"I was drying off my gloves the entire time. We put that play in just this week. I was excited to hear it called. That's the first time I've thrown one in a game."
8. UNFORTUNATE BLOW: Central's state-title hopes might not have materialized had Canfield's star offensive force, Angelo Babbaro, not made an early exit. The Cardinal running back/safety, who rushed for 1,931 yards and scored 34 of his team's 54 TDs this season, already had a 92-yard kickoff return score and a four-yard TD run in the first half to stake Canfield to a 14-3 lead before being forced out of the game with a knee injury.
"We knew we had to step up," said Canfield two-way lineman Nick Rousher, "but I don't know if we ever bounced back to the full extent after that [injury]. We were rolling until he went down."
9. MASTERMIND: Irish coach Dempsey credits much of Central's offensive success to the vision and creative play-calling of offensive coordinator Donnelly. The Irish averaged 31 points per game in the playoffs and, among other contributions, Donnelly's calm presence in pressure situations enabled Central to rally from three different seven-point deficits in the semifinals.
10. BACK TO SCHOOL: Championships are rarely achieved without commitment, from players and coaches alike. Dempsey decided he wanted to be Central's head football coach back when he was a junior defensive backup for the Irish in 1988.
When opportunity knocked in May of 2000, Dempsey not only answered that call, but put his money where his mouth was. A few years back he acknowledged he took a pay cut equal to one third of his prior combined teaching/coaching salary with Toledo Public Schools (Start High School) to accept his dream teaching/coaching duties at his alma mater.
He has no regrets, and now he has helped Central win its first state playoff championship.
Contact Steve Junga at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6461.
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