The 2012 high school football season began with great expectations for some area teams, and will end that way Friday and Saturday night on Ohio's biggest stages in Massillon and Canton.
In the 40 years since Ohio adopted a playoff system in 1972 to determine its state champions, Toledo's appearances on that stage have been few and far between.
Only four times have schools from the city reached state championship games -- three times for St. Francis de Sales and coach Dick Cromwell, and once for Central Catholic under Greg Dempsey.
This weekend, however, what has arguably been the greatest season in Toledo may ultimately produce two state champions in the same year.
Fourth-ranked Central Catholic (13-1) has the first chance at 7 p.m. Friday when the Irish take on defending champion and ninth-ranked Trotwood-Madison (12-2), in the Division II title game at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium in Massillon.
On Saturday, Canton's Fawcett Stadium will be the site of the 7 p.m. Division I final between third-ranked Whitmer (14-0) and unranked Cincinnati Moeller (11-3).
Sporting a combined 27-1 record, the only thing separating Whitmer and Central from perfection so far has been the Panthers' 42-0 win at Central in regular-season finale that gave Whitmer the Three Rivers Athletic Conference title.
Central shook off that humbling defeat, and both teams have been dominant in the postseason thus far.
"The TRAC is a very talented league with Central Catholic and Findlay and St. John's," first-year Whitmer coach Jerry Bell said. "We're very excited to have two teams from our conference playing for state titles.
"We have to stay focused and stay humble. We can't allow the fanfare of playing in a championship game effect us. We're treating this as a business trip. If we play our game, fast and physical, we feel we have an opportunity to bring home a state title."
Cromwell's 1982 Knights (9-4) were the first Toledo team to reach a state final, falling to Youngstown Cardinal Mooney 12-0 in the Division II title game. Two years later, St. Francis was back, this time in a Division I final at Ohio Stadium, where the Knights (12-1) edged North Canton Hoover 17-14 on a last-second field goal.
Seventeen years later, Cromwell and the Knights (13-1) did it again, taking the 2001 D-II crown with a 28-14 win over Columbus Watterson.
Toledo's third state championship came in 2005, when Central (14-1) edged Canfield 31-29 in a dramatic D-II title game.
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"You have to have good players to get this far," Central coach Greg Dempsey said. "This is definitely a talented team with similar star power to what we had in 2005. We had some big-name players then, and we have some now.
"The biggest difference is that year we were picked to finish fourth in our [City League] that year, and we became a Cinderella-type team. Until we beat [top-ranked] Avon Lake in the third round, I'm not sure how many people saw us as a contender in 2005.
"This year, people had us predicted to at least win the region, and things like that. There were a lot of expectations placed on these kids from the preseason on, and they handled that very well. It's not easy to have that label put on you."
For Whitmer, reaching this state final represents a major breakthrough for a program that has been close on several occasions. Some of the current Panthers were part of Whitmer teams that lost in D-I state semifinals the last two years, each time to the eventual state champion.
In 2010 the Panthers fell to Lakewood St. Edward 23-13 and last season they were beaten by Cleveland St. Ignatius 17-6.
Whitmer also advanced to state semifinals in 1979, 1987, and 1988 before falling.
This is Central's furthest advancement other than the 2005 championship.
Breaking it down …
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Central Catholic vs. Trotwood-Madison
■ With size and athleticism abundant on both sides, this game may go to the team making the fewest mistakes that cost it scoring opportunities. Rams have the benefit of championship game experience the past two years. Irish must contain Rams' 1-2 RB duo of Israel Green (1,732 yards, 24 TD), who ran 35 times for D-II title-game records of 327 yards and six TDs in 2011, and Ashton Jackson, who has rushed for 1,060 yards this season. T-M needs to solve Irish RBs Amir Edwards and Paul Moses and run-pass threat of QB DeShone Kizer.
■ "We have to limit their big plays, and try to control the running game. With the backs they have you're not going to shut them down. Hopefully we can tackle well on defense, and put some points on the board. Also, winning the turnover battle is important for field position and changing momentum." -- Central coach Greg Dempsey
■ "We have make sure we don't give them the big play. Edwards is a great running back and he has great vision. If you give him a crease he can take it to the house from anywhere on the field. They sprinkle in the pass when they want to, or when they need to. They present a lot of problems on offense because Kizer can make all the throws, and he can also run the ball. On defense, they've got some of the biggest defensive linemen, and they put so much pressure on you. We're going to have to do a good job at the line of scrimmage making sure those guys don't get penetration on us." -- Trotwood-Madison coach Maurice Douglass
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Whitmer vs. Cincinnati Moeller
■ Crusaders hold 7-0 edge in series vs. Whitmer, but the teams haven't played since 1993. Moeller has won seven state titles but none since 1985. This matchup appears to boil down to Moeller's size versus Whitmer's overall speed. Panthers' closest game this season was 11-point win over Hudson in regional semifinals. Whitmer senior QB Nick Holley's run-pass mix (3,735 total yards) is top priority for Moeller defense. In turn, the focus of Panthers' defense must be on Northwestern-bound RB Keith Watkins (2,078 rushing yards, 25 TDs).
■ "Moeller is an extremely talented football team. They're very big, and their guys are athletic. Their offense is led by their tailback and quarterback, and they have a big offensive line. Our front seven guys [on defense] are going to have to play very solid to be able to stop the run against them. Defensively, they give teams fits with the blitzes they do, their secondary is very good, and their defensive line is very good. We're going to have to execute at a very high level." --Whitmer coach Jerry Bell
■ "Whitmer's playing some great football right now. Their defense is big and athletic on the front. That gave Mentor some problems. Their quarterback is a special player. He's a tough kid. I watched him run, and he takes people on. They're just a tough, physical football team. You're going to go four quarters with them, and they're going to be banging with you. They're 14-0 for a reason. They play physical football, and they're well-coached." -- Moeller coach John Rodenberg