The last time Central Catholic reached a Division II state football semifinal, a 2005 Fighting Irish team arrived there as a something of a longshot.
Eventual Ohio State and Chicago Bears receiver Dane Sanzenbacher was then an emerging junior star receiver/defensive back for Central, in the midst of a superb five-game postseason performance (nine touchdowns, six interceptions) that would help the 10th-ranked Irish (14-1) win a state championship.
As fourth-ranked Central (12-1) faces fifth-ranked Aurora (12-1) at 7:30 p.m. today at Huron, there is no flying under the radar for the Irish, nor has there been since the playoffs began.
“In 2005, we were kind of a Cinderella team,” 13th-year Central head coach Greg Dempsey said. “This year people have been talking about us getting to this point since the preseason. I think these kids have handled that pressure and those expectations really well.”
Central was ranked No. 1 in Division II for the first seven weeks of the Associated Press poll before being bumped down by 42-0 loss to visiting Whitmer in a game that decided the Three Rivers Athletic Conference championship on Oct. 26.
Most of the season the Irish have been viewed across Ohio as a solid state-title contender and, since the humbling Whitmer defeat, they have done little to change those opinions. They are the highest ranked team still alive in the D-II playoffs.
Central has jumped out to big halftime leads in each of its first three playoff games, and drilling Grafton Midview (50-7), Mansfield Madison (45-7), and 2011 state runner-up Avon (42-14). In the first halves of those games, the Irish outscored the three foes 99-14.
“You’re always fearful of anything disrupting a rhythm when you’ve got things rolling,” Dempsey said. “But I think the kids have been really good this week. The look in their eyes says they really want to get to the state championship game very badly, as I know Aurora does.
“It’s been a good intense week, and I’m expecting the kids to come out with the same passion and look in their eyes they had the last three weeks.”
In Aurora, the Irish will face a team capable of slowing some of the Irish momentum with a proven ball-control offense keyed by an effective rushing attack.
“They’re a very good football team with some good running backs and a very good quarterback,” Dempsey said of Aurora. “Their skill guys are good-sized kids. One back [Zach Quinn] is 6-4, 210 pounds, and their quarterback is 6-2, 190, and he’s a physical runner.
“They’re very patient and good at what they do. They’re going to pound the ball, play defense, and try to win a close game.”
The top rusher for the Greenmen, Quinn has carried 130 times for 1,022 yards and scored 15 touchdowns. Aurora quarterback George Bollas is the No. 2 rusher with 124 carries for 952 yards and 15 TDs, and has completed 66 of his 116 passes for 1,248 yards and 13 TDs with just three interceptions.
A third back, Jake McVay has rushed 91 times for 785 yards and scored 12 TDs, and the top receiver for the Greenmen is 6-3, 175-pound Jake Czerwinski (24 catches, 381 yards, 3 TDs).
“They can consume large chunks of time and keep your offense off the field,” Dempsey said. “They can control the tempo of a game.”
On defense, Aurora is led in tackles by 6-3, 215-pound Alex Smierciak (114), followed by Nate Sotka (99), Quinn (82), and Brett Rodgers (81).
Smierciak also has five interceptions, and has caught 12 passes for 368 yards and four TDs.
“On defense, they may give up some yards, but they don’t give up big plays,” Dempsey said. “Hopefully we can hit them with a couple big plays and cause them to get uncomfortable on defense.”
Aurora, which won a D-II state championship in 2008, advanced to this state semifinal with regional wins over New Philadelphia (35-32), Kent Roosevelt (27-13), and Chardon (34-14).
Through 13 games, Central and Aurora are almost mirror images statistically on offense. The Irish average 280.6 yards rushing and 114.3 passing per game, and the Greenmen 277.9 on the ground and 115.5 through the air.
Central is outscoring foes 45.9 to 16.5 per game, Aurora 39.9 to 14.8.
The Irish are triggered by 6-4, 205-pound junior quarterback DeShone Kizer, who is 96-of-149 passing for 1,463 yards and 17 TDs with one interception. He has rushed 52 times for 408 yards and eight TDs.
The top rusher is senior back Amir Edwards, who has carried 210 times for 1,501 yards and scored 26 TDs. Juniors Paul Moses (79 rushes, 587 yards, 13 TDs) and Cedric Gray (66 rushes, 384 yards, 5 TDs) add depth to the ground game.
Kizer’s top targets are junior slot back Derich Weiland (32 catches, 476 yards, 9 total TDs) and 6-5, 250-pound tight end Keith Towbridge (22 catches, 305 yards, 6 TDs).
Central’s defense is anchored up front by 6-0, 305-pound tackle Jon Perrin (51 tackles, 12 for losses) and Towbridge (39 tackles, 10 TFL) at and end.
Chris Green (77 tackles) and Ian Butler (53 tackles, 11 TFL) highlight the linebacking corps, and Ohio State-bound Jayme Thompson (44 tackles, 2 interception-return TDs) and Joe Solomon (29 tackles, 4 INTs) lead the secondary.
“Keys for us will be getting them to have some three-and-outs on offense, putting points on the board early to try to make them play a game they don’t want to play, and winning the turnover battles,” Dempsey said.
“It’s a big deal for us to try to make them uncomfortable, and do things they don’t want to do when they don’t want to do them.
“With a great ball-control team, you have to make them feel like they can’t play their game anymore.”
Contact Steve Junga at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6461 or on Twitter@JungaBlade.