The City League football championship will be on the line tonight when four-time defending champ Central Catholic (6-1, 4-0 CL) faces the Whitmer Panthers (6-1, 3-1) on their turf.
The first-place Fighting Irish, who are ranked ninth in the latest Divsion II state poll, are trying to become the first team in City League history to win five consecutive league championships. They carry a four-game win streak versus Whitmer, which is ranked No. 8 in Division I.
The two teams hold down the top spots in the regional computer playoff ratings, Whitmer in Region 2 of D-I, and Central in Region 6 of D-II.
Setting up this title showdown was Central's 10-0 victory over visiting St. Francis de Sales (ranked No. 8 in D-II) last Friday night. The Knights (6-1, 3-1) had won at Whitmer 21-17 on Oct. 2.
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Central's only loss was a 17-7 setback against visiting Mishawaka Penn, the top-ranked big-school team in Indiana.
"If we want to win the City, this is a must-win game for us," Greg Dempsey said. "We have to beat Whitmer to win it, there's no other option. What we asked the kids Saturday morning was, 'How often do you get a chance to make history? It doesn't happen very often, and the opportunity's here, so let's give the effort it takes to get it done.' "
Since taking the head coaching post at his alma mater in 2000, Dempsey is 7-2 against Whitmer.
"Since I've been here, it seems like every game with Whitmer, except for maybe one or two, have been big games that come down to the last minute," he said.
Fourth-year Panther head coach Joe Palka, a Central grad, is seeking his first win over Central and Dempsey. Whitmer is also in search of its first City football title in seven CL seasons.
"If anything, I think we're going to play relaxed because now we have a loss and we don't feel like there's as much pressure," Palka said. "We were predicted to take second, and [the Irish] were predicted to take first. They're undefeated [in CL].
"We know we're fortunate to have a second chance to get back in the race. We've had big game after big game each week. After that loss we just said we have to learn from it and get better. We don't want to have that feeling again, and we knew that all of our goals were still attainable if we continued to move forward and win."
If Whitmer does beat Central, the Panthers will be in the driver's seat with CL games remaining against Bowsher (3-4, 3-1) and Start (1-6, 1-3). There is potential for a four-way tie record-wise at 6-1 in CL play with Whitmer, Central, St. Francis, and Rogers. With a win over the Irish, Whitmer would have the edge in the City League point standings as the only one of the four to have beaten two of the other teams at the top (Rogers and Central).
"We're just glad to have another chance at winning a City title," said Whitmer senior linebacker Shane Brown. "We're looking forward to the challenge. We learned what it felt like to lose [against St. Francis], and we don't want to do that again. We've been doing a little bit extra with film and practicing harder."
Brown and defensive back Jacob Noon rank second on Whitmer's tackles list with 39. Senior linebacker Corey Compton leads the Panthers with 55 tackles.
St. Francis had a chance to lock up the CL title before losing to Central, perhaps being unable to sustain the intensity it produced in beating Whitmer.
"It's tough coming off a big win like that against St. Francis," said Central senior linebacker Jake Henderson, who is second for the Irish in tackles with 42. "Everybody's got to stay focused and prepare for what's ahead of us."
Junior linebacker Chris Hoover tops Central with 50 tackles on a defense which has recorded three shutouts in four CL games. Senior defensive end Jamaal Tarrent leads the Irish with seven sacks.
Central is led offensively by senior quarterback Dave Walender, who has completed 36 of 82 passes for 536 yards and eight touchdowns. He has also rushed 30 times for 190 yards. Junior running back Calebb Goings leads the Irish in rushing with 601 yards on 132 carries.
Whitmer senior QB Joe Missler, who missed last week's 38-0 Panther win over Clay, has completed 44 of 89 passes for 641 yards and three TDs, and rushed 101 times for a team-high 637 yards and six scores. Senior Teryl Mershon is Whitmer's top rusher at running back, gaining 563 yards on 95 attempts. Panther back Micah Merritt (71 rushes, 352 yards) is the team's finisher near the goal line, scoring 15 TDs.
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