St. Xavier beats the odds (and the Tigers), moves on to Division I championship

PIQUA, Ohio -- The Bombers keep finding a way.

That eye for opportunity is taking the St. Xavier football team to Columbus next week.

St. X rallied for a third consecutive week this postseason and defeated Pickerington Central 29-27 in a Division I state semifinal at Alexander Stadium.

The Bombers will make their sixth state-final appearance in program history next week and the first since the Bombers won it in 2007. St. X also won state in 2005.

St. X (9-5) will play Cleveland St. Ignatius (13-1) at 8 p.m. Dec. 2 at Ohio Stadium. St. Ignatius defeated St. X 31-14 at Ballaban Field Oct. 22 in a regular-season matchup, but, with the way the Bombers are playing, that defeat seems long ago.

At the time, St. X coach Steve Specht said this season was one of the most frustrating yet rewarding campaigns since he started in 2004. St. X had to win the following week to clinch an eighth consecutive playoff berth.

Even the most ardent St. X fan couldn’t have imagined this postseason run. St. X is just the second team in Ohio High School Football Association playoff history to reach the state final with a 5-5 record (Columbus St. Francis DeSales was the other in 2001). Ironically, St. X played St. Ignatius in the state final that year too.

This year’s team keeps defying the odds. Despite numerous injuries, the Bombers persevered. They know no other way.

The St. Xavier players heard the naysayers early in the season especially after a 34-0 season-opening loss to St. John Bosco (Calif.) on national television at Nippert Stadium.

The players continued to hear criticism on whether they belonged in the playoffs with a 5-5 record.

“People were jumping off the bandwagon when we were 0-2 and even after the first game -- kids knew we got some nasty tweets from some alums talking about, ‘This isn’t the Bombers that I played for,'" Specht said. “And that’s embarrassing because you have to stick with your school and your team. These kids never let it faze them."

St. Xavier kicker Kevin Rockwood hit three field goals including the game winner.

The tables were turned on the Bombers Friday night on a cold, windy night in Piqua. Instead of falling behind, St. X clung to the lead for most of the night.

The Bombers held a 17-7 lead at halftime and went up 20-7 with eight minutes left in the third quarter on senior Kevin Rockwood’s second field goal of the night.

The team's mettle was tested midway through the third quarter when Pickerington Central’s Morgan Ellison took a screen pass and went 77 yard for a score.

Less than two minutes later, the Tigers returned an interception 97 yards for a score after it seemed the Bombers were sure to punch one in again.

Facing a 21-20 deficit, St. Xavier senior quarterback Sean Clifford scored on a 10-yard touchdown run at the 8:03 mark of the fourth quarter to give the Bombers a 26-20 lead.

Ellison struck again with a 60-yard touchdown run less than a minute later to give the Tigers a 27-26 lead.

Then, with 5:44 left, Clifford and the Bombers’ offense marched down the field. Clifford found senior Andrew Wittrock for a 23-yard pass connection.

Senior Quinn Earley ran well during the drive and put the Tigers on their heels. Earley had 18 carries for 120 yards for the night. He nearly broke a carry on third down.

Rockwood kicked his third field goal of the night -- this time a 32-yarder -- to give the Bombers a 29-27 lead.

Rockwood gave credit to his teammates for helping kick on a late November night.

"It means the world to me (to go to state)," Rockwood said. “It’s the greatest feeling."

The St. X defense held firm on Pickerington Central’s final drive. That included a sack by Brady Stoll and Will Childs. Stoll knocked down a pass on third down.

Stoll had a team-high eight-and-a-half tackles, including one-and-a-half sacks.

Delan Stallworth knocked down the fourth down pass.

Clifford, a Penn State commit, had 102 yards rushing. He was 16 of 29 passing for 166 yards.

Junior Cameron Specht had nine carries for 80 yards and a first-quarter touchdown. Wittrock had five carries for 91 yards.

The Bombers are 6-1 in state semifinal games. This was the first trip to the state Final Four since 2011.

"They play as hard as any Bomber football team we’ve ever had," Steve Specht said. "I couldn’t be prouder of this group of kids."

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