Perhaps not all members of the Central Catholic football team have been introduced to the works of author Charles Dickens, but the Fighting Irish know all about Great Expectations.
Coach Greg Dempsey, in his 14th season, has the Irish at 7-0 overall and in first-place at 4-0 in the Three Rivers Athletic Conference heading into Friday’s game at St. John’s Jesuit.
Central is coming off a 14-1, Division II state championship season, and is ranked No. 2 in the Associated Press state poll in its new classification of Division III.
Seven starters returned on offense this season, including one of the nation’s most highly rated quarterbacks in 6-foot-5, 218-pound Notre Dame commit DeShone Kizer. Four more starters were back on defense.
With these credentials, it was only logical that the Irish be viewed as a contender for a second straight state title and third in nine seasons.
“A lot of those [championship] predictions have been made because of the kids we had returning,” said Dempsey, who has a 125-36 career record. “We have back some major contributors from last year’s state championship team, and one of them is a highly touted quarterback.
“That automatically puts expectations on you. From a coaching standpoint, we knew we were replacing a lot, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The question was, how were we going to develop those kids to fill the holes?”
Dempsey and his experienced staff have steered the Irish away from basking in last year’s glory.
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“The big thing has been focusing on developing,” Dempsey said. “Our focus has been on this season. We have not talked about last season very often. It’s this season, this week, this opponent.
“We’re not talking about streaks or repeats. Our theme every week is let’s go 1-0 this week, and that keeps the focus on the step that’s in front of us. It’s been working.”
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Central has outscored its opponents 257-70.
With the state’s highest D-III computer rating (22.1929), the Irish have already clinched a playoff berth.
After opening with a 21-14 win over Warren (Mich.) De La Salle, Central beat the top two teams from the Northern Lakes League — Southview (35-17) and Perryburg (35-6).
Next came the biggest mental hurdle, a come-from-behind 21-14 TRAC win over Whitmer, which bashed the Irish 42-0 last season.
A 35-7 win at Fremont Ross was followed by a 41-9 rout of second-place St. Francis de Sales (5-2, 3-1) and last Friday’s 69-3 pounding of Findlay.
Riding Kizer’s ever-improving output at quarterback (85 of 143 passing for 1,494 yards, 15 touchdowns, two interceptions), Central’s offense is averaging 497 yards and 36.7 points per game.
“Before the season we had our victory camp, and that was one of our main goals: To avoid the expectation factor,” Kizer said. “Our job now is to continue to stay away from complacency — to come out each week and go 1-0, and only worry about the opponent that week.
“We want to go out and have that [championship] feeling again in our senior year, and get it for the underclassmen, who didn’t get the opportunity to be there in Massillon with us last year. We want them to go out and get their own memories. Trying to create our own new identity makes it easier for us to keep our eyes on the prize.”
With a nagging ankle injury limiting the offensive reps of senior running back/linebacker Paul Moses, sophomore running back Tre’Von Wade has filled the void with 845 yards on 107 carries (7.9 average), including 10 touchdowns.
Kizer has run 37 times for 352 yards (9.5) and three TDs, and he has punted 17 times for a 41.4-yard average. Moses has added 239 yards on 41 rushes and scored three TDs, part of Central’s 283-yards-per-game ground attack.
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“We just don’t get big-headed,” Moses said. “We take it step by step every day and try to work our way up.
“I think we’re getting there. Last year, the coaches had to keep telling us over and over how to do something. This year they tell us one time and we get it.”
Four Irish receivers have at least 15 catches, led by junior Jermiah Braswell (23 catches, 479 yards, 7 TDs). Senior Derich Weiland, a third-year starter along with Kizer, has 21 catches for 238 yards.
“We had a great offseason, and our coaches prepared us well,” Weiland said. “In our victory camp we really bonded and meshed together. The season started off great, and each week we’ve gotten a little better.
“If we can keep getting better, that’s what will make us a very successful team and allow us to reach our goals. This week we’re playing St. John’s, and we’ve got to focus on St. John’s. We can’t be looking to week 10, week 11, or week 12.”
Last week Weiland missed his first game after 33 straight starts. He dislocated his left elbow in the third quarter against St. Francis, but is expected to return against St. John’s.
The team’s other third-year starter, offensive lineman and Duke commit Zach Harmon, was not as fortunate. He was lost for the season after fracturing a neck vertebra against Perrysburg.
Senior Dayton Copeland-Lee has 15 receptions for 335 yards and three TDs, and junior Marcus Winters has 15 receptions for 274 yards and three scores.
Kizer’s counterpart on defense is junior linebacker Chris Green, who leads the Irish with 59 tackles, including seven for losses. He also shares the team lead with four sacks.
“We didn’t come into the season saying, ‘We’re Division II state champs and we can’t be beaten,’ ” Green said. “It’s a new class and a new year, and we want to be the new D-III champion.
“What happened last year happened last year. That class got theirs and now we want ours. People are going to talk, but we just try to stay focused on our goals, and take it game by game. We just worry about who’s next.”
Moses has 27 tackles, including a team-best 10 for losses, and has four sacks.
A revamped secondary has been led by senior Ryan O’Hearn’s 39 tackles. Junior Stephon Campbell is next with 30 tackles, followed by senior Ryan Roberts (29), junior Colin Kaucher (26), and senior TeJuan James (22).
The balanced defensive front has 6-1, 295-pound junior Christian Ward; 5-11, 245-pound senior Marwan Allen-Marsenburg, and 6-0, 270-pound junior J’Quan Fisher. They have 22, 21, and 20 tackles, respectively.