The chase for the City League football championship could tighten up considerably, or turn into a one-horse race after tonight's clash between visiting St. Francis de Sales (6-0, 3-0 CL) and Central Catholic (5-1, 3-0) before what is expected to be a standing-room-only crowd at Central's Gallagher Stadium.
If veteran St. Francis coach Dick Cromwell's Knights prevail, they would be in the driver's seat as the CL's lone unbeaten team in league play.
St. Francis - ranked No. 4 in the Division II state poll and No. 1 in the latest Region 6 computer ratings - will have CL games remaining against Start (0-6, 0-3), Bowsher (2-4, 2-1) and Clay (4-2, 2-1), and would be favored in each of those contests.
If coach Greg Dempsey's Fighting Irish knock off the Knights, the four-time defending CL champions would then throw some drama into the title chase, and set up another huge league clash for Central next Friday night at Whitmer (5-1, 2-1). The Panthers, ranked No. 10 in the D-I state poll and No. 1 in the Region 2 computer ratings, were beaten 21-17 by visiting St. Francis last Friday.
In that scenario - with Central beating St. Francis - the winner of next Friday's Central-Whitmer battle would be on track for the City championship.
"I think the atmosphere is going to be pretty spectacular," Dempsey said of tonight's 51st renewal of the Irish-Knight football rivalry. "We're going to see around 8,000 people here. The fans are going to be real excited for it, and I think it's going to be a great high school football setting."
"I don't think there's pressure," Cromwell said. "It's just great excitement and a great opportunity. This year the City League is very unique in that we've got six or seven teams that are pretty good. You don't have too many off weeks, so the kids have got to be ready."
Central has been paced offensively by quarterback Dave Walender (33-of-75 passing, 501 yards, seven touchdowns) and running back Calebb Goings (98 carries, 466 yards, 10 TDs).
But the key for the Irish will be how well top playmaker Nate Hobbs has recovered from a Sept. 11 turf toe injury. Hobbs left in the second quarter of Central's 17-7 home loss to Mishawaka (Ind.) Penn, Indiana's top-ranked big-school team, and hasn't played since.
"They pose a lot of challenges for you defensively," Cromwell said of the Irish. "On the other side, they've got a very aggressive and talented front seven. You have to block them to get your running game going, and then they have four nice athletes in their secondary."
The Knights, who have been bolstered by strong play on both lines, counter offensively with the senior trio of quarterback Tyler Johnston (19-of-46 passing, 410 yards, five TDs; 183 rushing yards), receiver Scott Loy (15 catches, 350 yards, seven TDs) and tailback Lee Lukasik (83 rushes, 497 yards, six TDs). All three players also start defensively for St. Francis at safety, cornerback and linebacker, respectively.
"They have a lot of weapons on offense, and on defense they're getting after it," Dempsey said. "They have maybe the best defensive backfields we've seen this year, with great athleticism and size. Yards through the air will be tough.
"They lock you down, and then they make it tough to run the football. We're going to have to come up with something."
Each team also has solid kicking games with Knight punter/kicker Pat Dyer, who is averaging around 42 yards per punt, and Central's combination of kicker Kyle Burkhardt, who broke his own school record with a 57-yard field goal last week, and punter Pat Wesolowski.
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