The pain the Pickerington High School Central football team felt a year ago when it lost to Cincinnati St. Xavier in a state semifinal might have had some redeeming value after all.
The Tigers, who couldn't hang on to a late lead in a 29-27 loss to the Bombers, were determined not to close this season in similar fashion.
After being tied at halftime against Mentor in the Division I state final Dec. 1 at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Central found its footing during the third quarter and pulled away for a 56-28 victory and the first title in program history.
"It almost feels weird," coach Jay Sharrett said. "This is the first time for myself and these young men that we've ended the season on a win. We lost a heartbreaker last year to St. X in a great state semifinal game and didn't have a chance to get to the state championship game. ... That kind of stiffened our resolve, that we were going to get back here and were going to do it. I couldn't be happier for the rest of the team."
Central, which finished 14-1 overall while Mentor finished 13-2, was on the verge of falling behind early in the third quarter when Cardinals quarterback Tadas Tatarunas threw incomplete on fourth-and-inches at the Tigers' 4-yard line and with the game tied at 21.
The Tigers followed with a nine-play, 96-yard drive that was capped by a 10-yard touchdown run by sophomore quarterback Demeatric Crenshaw.
"That made our guys think we can do this," Sharrett said, referring to the fourth-down stop. "We drove the ball (96) yards for a touchdown and it surprised me, and I think it stunned (Mentor). From then on, our offensive line couldn't wait to get back on the field. They came off the ball and got the creases, got Demeatric some big runs, got Xavier Henderson big runs and got some plow touchdowns."
Crenshaw completed four of seven passes for 106 yards and rushed 24 times for 161 yards and a Division I state-final record six touchdowns. Henderson had 153 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries and Alex Morgan had two catches for 72 yards.
Jeremiah Wood added nine carries for 35 yards and one score and finished with 10 tackles on defense.
Grey Brancifort led the defense with 12 tackles. Isaiah O'Connor had eight tackles one forced fumble and Trenton Gillison had six tackles, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Gillison also had one catch for 19 yards on offense.
"It means a lot because we've been working since the offseason," Wood said. "We had a heartbreaking game that we lost in the state final four (last year) and we just wanted to make sure we made it further and got to this point and won."
The Tigers are losing 27 seniors, led by first-team all-district honorees Brancifort (LB/RB), Gillison (TE/LB), Henderson (DB/RB/WR), Wood (DB/RB) and Trey Madison (OL/DL) as well as Morgan (TE/LB), who was second-team all-district, and Tristan Peppers (WR/DB/P), who was honorable mention all-district.
Henderson, a Michigan State recruit, finished with four interceptions, rushed for 379 yards and three touchdowns, had 12 catches for 259 yards and two scores and returned both a kickoff and an interception for scores. He was named district Defensive Player of the Year for the second year in a row and was named co-Player of the Year in both the state and the OCC-Ohio Division.
The Tigers won their 12th consecutive league championship, finishing 5-0 to place ahead of Pickerington North (4-1), Reynoldsburg (3-2), Gahanna (2-3), Lancaster (1-4) and Grove City (0-5).
In the playoffs, third-seeded Central beat sixth-seeded Clayton Northmont (41-21 on Nov. 3), second-seeded Hilliard Bradley (42-31 on Nov. 10 at DeSales) and fifth-seeded North (31-14 on Nov. 17) to win the Region 3 title.
The Tigers then beat Cincinnati Colerain 41-28 in a state semifinal Nov. 24.
"Colerain likes to run the ball every time, so switching to (Mentor), they can pass, they can run, they can do both, so we had to make sure we adjusted and did our jobs and did our roles," Wood said.
Gillison joined Henderson as a first-team all-state honoree. Wood was second-team all-state and Brancifort and Madison made the third team.
Joining Henderson on first-team all-league were Brancifort, Gillison, Madison, Wood and juniors DeWayne Carter (DL) and Terry Simuel (DB/WR).
Wood, who rushed for 310 yards and nine touchdowns, has scholarship offers from a dozen schools, including Iowa State and Cincinnati.
Gillison was the team's leading receiver with 18 catches for 209 yards and three touchdowns and is another Michigan State commit. Morgan is a Toledo commit and Madison has committed to Ashland.
Brancifort leaves as the program's all-time leader in tackles.
Carter, who was second-team all-district, already has 13 scholarship offers, including from Notre Dame, Northwestern, Tennessee and Kentucky.
Morgan was joined on second-team all-league by Crenshaw and seniors Brody Egan (OL/DL), Tyler Poe (OL/DL) and Brandon Wilson (OL). Senior Emmanuel Adams (LB) was special mention all-league and senior Jalen Mitchell (DB) was honorable mention all-league.
Senior kicker Cameron Cubra made eight field goals and 63 extra points and Peppers averaged 35.6 yards on 49 punts, placing 16 inside the 20.
Grant Meek (OL), Tavyn Myers (DB/WR), Justin Sutherland (WR), Isaiah Viney (LB/DL) and Ravon White (OL/DL) were other senior contributors.
Crenshaw and Simuel were second-team all-district and should be among the top returnees.
"(Crenshaw) did great things this year," Henderson said. "Coach Sharrett and the seniors, we challenged him to step up and play larger than his age and he did that. Big things are coming for him, and I'm excited to see it."
Crenshaw finished with 1,379 yards and 24 touchdowns on 216 carries and was 89-for-172 passing for 1,604 yards with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions.
The team's second-leading rusher was junior running back Jamir Jackson, who finished with 784 yards and 15 touchdowns on 148 carries and added seven catches for 103 yards and two scores.
Simuel had 11 catches for 213 yards and one touchdown, had 12 punt returns for 235 yards and 59 tackles and one interception on defense.
Junior linebacker Isaiah O'Connor finished third on the team in tackles with 88, behind Brancifort (156) and Wood (96). Carter had 58 tackles, junior linebacker Ty Hamilton had 57 and junior defensive back Jason Betts had 53.
Junior defensive back Jaquwon Crawford, who had two pass breakups in the state final, finished with four interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
Freshman Lorenzo Styles Jr. (WR/DB) had 10 receptions for 110 yards and 107 yards rushing and a touchdown on 21 carries.
Others eligible to return include juniors Mike Dunlap (LB), Quincy Edwards (DB), Sencere Gordon (DB/RB), Dominic Marasco (LB), Lance Matthews (RB/DB) and Keaton Middendorf (WR), sophomores Connor Burgess (OL), Alec Hammer (OL/DL) and Langston Perry (RB/DB) and freshman Gio Thomas (RB/LB).
"I'm happy to be a freshman and help our seniors win," Styles Jr. said. "Our seniors did their part and our underclassmen did their part."