DAYTON -- The Pickerington High School Central football team gave up a season-high 353 yards during a 38-21 loss to Cincinnati St. Xavier when the teams met in a regular-season game on Sept. 4 at Ohio Stadium.
But the Tigers’ defense fared much better against the Bombers in a Division I state semifinal on Saturday, Nov. 26, at Welcome Stadium, as Central held St. Xavier to 182 yards en route to a 14-7 victory.
Central won its 11th consecutive game to improve to 11-2, while St. Xavier finished 10-4.
The Tigers advanced to play Cleveland St. Ignatius in the state final on Dec. 3 at Fawcett Stadium in Canton, marking their first appearance in the Division I state final. In 2006, they reached a Division II state final, where they lost to Piqua 26-7.
“We knew we had to attack their offense because our kids aren’t as good when they have to read and react, so we took some chances,” Central defensive coordinator Jeff Lomonico said. “We got everybody in the right position to make plays, and we played with more confidence this time.”
St. Xavier running back Conor Hundley rushed for 156 yards and four touchdowns on 24 carries in the first meeting, but was held to 51 yards on 18 carries in the rematch.
“They were pinching a lot on defense to take away Conor, and they’re so fast and physical up front it was hard to move the ball against them,” St. Xavier coach Steve Specht said.
On its first possession, St. Xavier put together a 16-play, 62-yard drive that was capped by a 9-yard touchdown run by Kevin Milligan, who took the direct snap and hurdled over a defender on the way to the end zone.
Facing fourth-and-9 at Central’s 44 on that drive, the Bombers converted a fake punt, as up-back Mark Jacob took the snap and handed the ball to another up-back, Andrew Arand, who ran 9 yards for the first down.
But the Tigers answered with an 11-play, 58-yard touchdown drive, which was capped by a 9-yard pass from quarterback Nick Jensen-Clagg to wide receiver Jake Raymond with 35 seconds remaining in the second quarter to tie the game at 7.
“We called a screen and that was the perfect play for that situation because we knew they were going to come hard,” Raymond said. “Jacoby Boren had a huge block to let me get into the end zone.”
Both teams struggled to move the ball during a scoreless third quarter, as the Bombers managed only 25 yards and Central had minus-2 yards.
Jensen-Clagg fumbled the ball while being sacked on the final play of the third quarter and St. Xavier lineman Brian Douglas recovered it at Central’s 33.
But the Bombers failed to capitalize on the short-field opportunity, as Hundley was stopped by linebacker Greg Basalyga for a 1-yard loss on fourth-and-2.
“When Nick got stripped and our defense got that big stop, what a huge turnaround,” Central coach Jay Sharrett said.
Central followed its big defensive stand by putting together an 11-play, 74-yard drive, which culminated in a 10-yard touchdown run by Devon Penick with 5:38 remaining.
“(Wide receiver) Roger (Lewis) got out and sealed the outside for me, and I just cut inside and found an open lane to the end zone,” Penick said.
On the winning drive, the Tigers converted on fourth-and-4 at St. Xavier’s 33, as Raymond made a one-handed catch on a pass that was thrown behind him and gained 14 yards.
“Nick put the ball in a spot where only I could get it, and I just reached back with my right hand and grabbed it,” Raymond said. “That’s the first one-handed catch I’ve ever made, because Nick always puts it on the money.”
St. Xavier drove to Central’s 29 with 11 seconds left, but the game ended after quarterback Griffin Dolle threw back-to-back incompletions in the end zone.
Jensen-Clagg was 12-for-16 passing for 97 yards, and Billy Eakins rushed for 65 yards on 14 carries.
Dolle was 13-for-25 passing for 104 yards.
“Pickerington Central has been rolling opponents since we last played them, and this one came down to the last play,” Specht said. “They just made a few more plays than us.”
CINCINNATI ST. XAVIER 7 0 0 0 -- 7
PICKERINGTON CENTRAL 0 7 0 7 -- 14
CSX--Milligan 9 run (Roemer kick)
PC--Raymond 9 pass from Jensen-Clagg (Raymond kick)
PC--Penick 10 run (Raymond kick)