DAYTON -- The Pickerington High School Central football team will be representing central Ohio in the Division I state final, but chances are not many people outside the program expected the Tigers to advance that far considering their start to the season.
After losing its first two games, Central appeared to be in jeopardy of missing the Region 3 playoffs.
However, the Tigers fought through the early season adversity to win 11 consecutive games and earn a berth in the state final against Cleveland St. Ignatius on Dec. 3, at Fawcett Stadium in Canton.
Central advanced to the final by defeating Cincinnati St. Xavier 14-7 in a state semifinal on Saturday, Nov. 26, at Welcome Stadium.
With the win, the Tigers avenged a 38-21 loss to St. Xavier on Sept. 4 at Ohio Stadium, as their defense, which has played a key role in their turnaround, held the Bombers in check for most of the rematch.
After allowing 353 yards in the first meeting, Central’s defense relinquished only 168 yards in the rematch.
A fourth-down stand at the Central 20-yard line thwarted a St. Xavier scoring chance in the fourth quarter and set up the Tigers’ go-ahead scoring drive.
Tigers coach Jay Sharrett credits a bye in Week 3 as a key to the team's turnaround.
“These coaches are my closest friends,” said Sharrett, whose team lost to Cincinnati Moeller 14-0 in its opener on Aug. 27. “When I told them who we were playing (in the first two weeks), they raised a couple eyebrows and they said, 'OK, let’s do it,' and they did it. Our kids played tough this game and we coached tough, but what our coaching staff did during that bye week is they knuckled down and said we are going to pour everything into this and see if we can win the (OCC-Ohio Division) and see if we can get into the playoffs and then see what happens.”
The players also never lost faith in the team's chances for success after the first two games.
“Our coaches stuck with us, our fans obviously stayed with us,” senior quarterback Nick Jensen-Clagg said. “People were underestimating us, but we had it in our hearts and we played our hearts out tonight.”
The winning streak began with a 24-0 victory over Lancaster on Sept. 16 to begin OCC-Ohio play. The Tigers then survived a scare against Pickerington North on Sept. 23, pulling out a 24-21 win.
Central would win its next eight games, including its first three playoff contests, by at least 21 points. It opened the playoffs with a 55-14 win over Dublin Coffman on Nov. 5, then beat Gahanna 41-10 in the second round Nov. 12 before winning the regional title with a 24-0 win over Hilliard Davidson on Nov. 19.
Davidson entered the game as the top seed in the region and the top-ranked team in the final state poll.