Thank you, Central Catholic and St. Francis de Sales, for returning high school playoff football to Toledo.
For the last week, the ongoing debate has been who would win last night's Division II regional semifinal between the Knights and Irish at Waite's Mollenkopf Stadium.
I think that both teams will look back fondly on their contributions to the resurgence.
It's just that St. Francis will have fonder memories, courtesy of a decisive 31-0 win over Central Catholic in front of an overflow crowd estimated at 7,500.
“Playing Central is always a big game. Playing in front of this crowd makes it even more special,” said St. Francis coach Dick Cromwell, who turns 54 today. “This was a nice atmosphere.”
“It stings right now, but this is something these kids will never forget,” Central Catholic coach Greg Dempsey said. “Having two Toledo teams make it this far says a lot for football in our area.”
In a game showcasing two dynamic running backs, Rodney Gamby of St. Francis and Central Catholic's Derek Barksdale, the team with the best back won.
Gamby, a senior, ran for 221 yards and two touchdowns after rushing for 261 yards and a score in the Knights' 16-8 victory over Central two weeks ago in a game that decided the City League championship. Gamby, who was suffering from the flu last night, also scored on a 85-yard kickoff return to open the second half.
The prototypical high school star, Gamby played both offense and defense and didn't leave the field until St. Francis led 24-0 in the fourth quarter.
Gamby broke loose for an electrifying 69-yard scoring run in the second quarter that nearly broke the spirit of the Irish. His kickoff return and 6-yard TD bolt later in the third quarter finished the job.
Transforming his body into a battering ram, Gamby, who rushed 23 times, controlled the ball and the clock in helping St. Francis advance to face Avon Lake next week in the Region 6 final.
“The adrenaline and emotion of the game got me going,” Gamby said. “It's like you're in a zone. Everybody is feeding off of each other. I was feeling pretty ugly for awhile. When I scored on the kickoff return, I felt like a million bucks.”
Perhaps the most important element of Gamby's performance was that Central Catholic's players and coaches and everyone else in the stadium knew that Gamby was getting the ball. Gamby ran through and around defenders with stunning swiftness and power.
Said Dempsey: ``It would take coach Cromwell getting mad at him (to stop Gamby). He's a great back. When you have a player like that, you can win.''
Gamby's performance overshadowed the play of Barksdale, who rushed for 184 yards and one touchdown in the first meeting and amassed 94 yards in the opening half last night.
With Central Catholic trailing 10-0 and needing a quick stop to shift the momentum, Gamby fielded the second-half kickoff at the 15, veered to his left, shifted gears and sprinted untouched to the end zone.
Gamby's kickoff return will be talked about for years to come. So, too, will the return of playoff football to Toledo.
John Harris is a Blade sports columnist. E-mail him at email@example.com.