Whitmer's Nick Longenbarger (81) out-races Central Catholic's Derek Hafner (6) as he scores a touchdown in the first quarter.
Ten down, five to go.
With the regular season complete, the unbeaten, third-ranked Whitmer Panthers turn their attention to the Division I state playoffs.
The Panthers (10-0, 7-0) won the first Three Rivers Athletic Conference title outright Friday night by pounding Central Catholic 38-21 in front of over 7,000 spectators at Memorial Stadium.
PHOTO GALLERY: Whitmer defeats Central 38-21.
"We were greedy," said Whitmer's University of Michigan-bound, All-Ohio defensive end Chris Wormley. "Last week we got a share [of the TRAC title] and we wanted to win it outright tonight."
Whitmer grabbed an early 17-0 lead, pushed it to 31-7 by halftime, and never looked back in outgaining the Irish 376-243 offensively.
Senior running back Jody Webb, also a first-team All-Ohioan last year, was contained for much of the game before breaking a late 63-yard touchdown for Whitmer's final score.
He finished with 25 carries for 146 yards and two TDs, Panthers junior quarterback Tyler Palka was 7-of-10 passing for 88 yards and score, and senior back LeRoy Alexander added 94 yards on eight rushes, all in the first half.
The Whitmer defense limited the Irish to seven points until the final 7:13.
Central Catholic High School player Jayme Thompson, 8, tries to find running room as he returns a kick in the first quarter at Whitmer High School.
The Panthers, who were 12-2 and advanced to the D-I state semifinals last season, will likely enter this postseason as the top seed in Region 2, and will host a first-round game Saturday.
"In the playoffs, it's all about matchups," Whitmer coach Joe Palka said. "It's great to have a home game, but we didn't look past this week. Central's a great team and we knew it would take a great effort to win."
"We were stingy," Webb said of the outright TRAC crown. "We didn't want to share. We have a good feeling about one another on the team and as a team. Going into the playoffs, we feel like we have a good chance to be state champs."
Whitmer struck first, converting on Michael Baldwin's 25-yard field goal 4:50 into the game. The Panthers made it 10-0 with 58 seconds left in the first quarter on Palka's 27-yard pass over the middle to tight end Nick Longenbarger.
After Central running back Amir Edwards (10 carries, 16 yards) lost a fumble, Whitmer capitalized. Alexander ran 17 yards through the middle for a TD five seconds into the second quarter for a 17-0 Panthers lead.
"I was pleased offensively," coach Palka said. "We put points on the board the first three times we had the ball. Against Central's defense, that's tough to do.
"I thought we had to get a lead so our kids believed, and maybe their kids had a little bit of doubt. If that game stays tight early, I think [the Irish] continue to make some plays and it's a dogfight."
Central (7-3, 5-2) answered with a 65-yard drive, scoring on sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer's 14-yard pass to Logan Lorenzen on a fourth-and-10 play 8:36 before halftime.
Kizer was 11-of-23 passing for 83 yards in the game and did not play in the final quarter. Dempsey said that move was made to preserve Kizer for Friday's Division II playoff game. The Irish are also likely to host a first-round contest in Region 6.
The Panthers would add two more scores before the break to grab a commanding 31-7 lead.
Matt Bodeman's 40-yard kickoff return led to Webb's one-yard TD plunge with 4:48 left in the half for Whitmer, and a controversial fumble call led to the Panthers' final score of the half.
A screen pass from Kizer to Derich Weiland appeared to be incomplete, but when the ball was on the turf Panther safety Marcus Elliot picked it up and raced 65 yards to the end zone.
The officiating crew apparently ruled the play a catch and fumble as opposed to an incomplete pass and, despite protestations from Irish head coach Greg Dempsey, the TD stood two minutes before the break.
"We have played some good Division I football teams over the years, and Whitmer is right up there with the best of them," Central coach Greg Dempsey said. "They have depth, explosiveness, and they do a great job with their guys.
"Tonight we wanted to battle and get better. It was about finishing and fighting for the full 48 minutes, whether it's going good or bad. We have the playoffs to look forward to."
Central's two fourth-quarter TDs came on Sean Sullivan's eight-yard pass to Gary Easterly, and Jared Fann's one-yard plunge. The final score was set up when Panther return man Alonzo Lucas lost a fumble at his 8 with 4:47 left in the game.
Contact Steve Junga at: firstname.lastname@example.org 419-724-6461, or on Twitter @JungaBlade.
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