With its run of four straight City League football championships snapped by Whitmer, Central Catholic now hopes to end a negative trend as it prepares to host Rocky River in a Division II first-round playoff game tomorrow at Gallagher Stadium.
In the past three years following their D-II state championship in 2005, the Irish have made it back to the playoffs each season, but have dropped three straight first-round games.
The first early exit came in 2006 in the "Dane-versus-Saine" matchup between Central and eventual state champion Piqua played at Lake. In that one, current Ohio State teammates Dane Sanzenbacher of Central and Brandon Saine of Piqua (Ohio's Mr. Football in 2006) squared off with the Indians humbling the fourth-ranked Irish 33-14.
In 2007, in the inaugural playoff game at Gallagher Stadium, with Dane and Saine on to OSU, Piqua again toppled Central
21-9. And, last year, a 10-0 Central team that was ranked No. 3 in the state got thumped 34-7 by Powell Olentangy Liberty at home.
New year, same stadium and, 10th-year Irish coach Greg Dempsey hopes, a new result.
"I'm very proud of this team," Dempsey said of his eighth playoff team in 10 seasons. "They've gone through a lot injury-wise throughout the year to still be in position to make the playoffs.
"That was a huge accomplishment, and it really means a lot because football is the only sport where you have to earn your way into the playoffs. When you get there that many times, it's really about the kids and the job they've been doing."
Central (8-2) is one of four City League teams to earn playoff berths this year, matching the league's postseason foursome of 2004. But this time, all four start the playoffs at home.
"It's kind of interesting that you could [potentially] play three rounds of playoffs without leaving the city of Toledo," Dempsey said, "if things work out with the way the matchups are set."
If Central, St. Francis, Rogers and Maumee all win, that would guarantee all local playoff games through the
Region 6 championship game.
Central hangs its hat on a defense that has allowed just 102 points in 10 games, a group anchored up front by defensive ends Jamaal Tarrent (41 tackles, eight sacks) and Mike Bonitati (28 tackles). The tackle leaders are linebackers Chris Hoover (68) and Jake Henderson (63), and cover cornerback Gerrn Duhart tops the secondary with four interceptions.
"We have played great defense all year, and we've had spectacular special teams," Dempsey said. "Offensively, we've had a pretty strong run game for the most part. We've had a lot of injuries on offense and we're just starting to gel.
"We've gotten a lot better offensively as the year's gone on, and hopefully we're peaking at the right time on
On offense, the Irish have been a work in progress, slowly developing what is now an effective ground game.
Junior running back Calebb Goings has been the go-to guy on the ground, carrying 184 times for 849 yards and scoring nine touchdowns. This emerging ground threat has opened things up for senior quarterback Dave Walender, who threw a school single-game record five TD passes in last Friday's 40-21 win over St. John's Jesuit.
Walender, an adept scrambler, has rushed for 232 yards and completed 56 of 120 passes for 836 yards and 14 TDs with just two interceptions. His top target has been junior wideout Josh Stump (18 catches, 303 yards, 4 TDs).
And, Central's ace in the hole, both offensively and defensively, is senior Kyle Burkhardt, who is arguably the best placekicker in Ohio. Burkhardt has booted 13 field goals, including a school record 57-yarder, plus two
others from 52 yards. Helping the defense with field position, Burkhardt has sent 27 of his kickoffs fro touchbacks.
Rocky River managed a 7-3 record and West Shore Conference co-championship this season despite being outscored 180-174, and outgained 278-233 per game in total offense. These facts generate no false sense of security for a coach whose team has lost the three straight playoff openers.
"Rocky River is a tough team that's won a lot of close games in a pretty competitive league," Dempsey said. "They have an aggressive defense that causes lots of turnovers, and offensively they're probably the most balanced team we've faced this year. They have about a 55 to 45 [percent] run-to-pass percentage, and their quarterback [Robbie Plagens, 1,560 passing yards, 13 TDs] 's a very nice football player."
Central's losses came against Mishawaka (Ind.) Penn, 17-7, and Whitmer, 14-7.