WARSAW, Ky. – Newport Central Catholic survived an early scare from the new kids on the block, rallying in the second half to beat Gallatin County, 34-12, in Friday night's Class 2A regional finals.
The Thoroughbreds (9-4) kept their quest for their third state title in four years alive behind a pair of second-half interceptions by junior Brandon Gray and four touchdowns by quarterback Mac Franzen. The senior threw for three scores and ran for another as NewCath pulled away from a 6-6 halftime tie.
"We were getting down the field, but we couldn't finish in the first half. Stupid penalties hurt us and we just couldn't push into the end zone," said Franzen, who finished with nine completions on 11 attempts for 101 yards.
That changed after a blistering halftime address by coach Dan Wagner.
After taking the opening drive of the half 58 yards in eight plays, NewCath went up by a touchdown of Franzen's 29-yard scoring strike to Jacob Smith, then harassed the Wildcats' offense until the game was well in hand.
Gallatin finished the third quarter with zero net offensive yards and trailing, 27-6.
"Coach chewed us out pretty good at the half," Franzen said. "He really gave it to us. (Gallatin) wanted it. They wanted it bad, and we had to come out and match their intensity. That's what we did."
NewCath's Jack Sutkamp ran for 102 yards on 15 carries and Smith rushed for 72 yards to help the Thoroughbreds extend their winning streak to eight games after starting the season 1-4.
Gallatin's Austin Chapman went 14-of-31 for 220 passing yards and two throwing scores, with 88 yards coming in the Wildcats' last drive as time ran out. Newport held bruising Gallatin fullback Chris Brown to just 35 yards on 12 carries.
NCC looked to have everything in control early after scoring on its first possession. Sutkamp's 20-yard touchdown run put NewCath up, 6-0, then the defense held Gallatin off on fourth-down in the red zone to preserve the lead.
As the penalties began to add up, Gallatin took the momentum. And a bit of luck.
The Wildcats scored on a 29-yard throw from Chapman to receiver Jeff Eversole in the front of the end zone. Eversole appeared to not have possession before knocking over the pylon and gaining possession out of bounds, but officials signaled the touchdown.
A Kalvin Moore fumble thwarted a promising drive midway through the second quarter, then NewCath drove to the Gallatin five yard line as the first half waned, but a Franzen sack followed by a shanked 29-yard John Caudill field goal attempt kept the game tied at the break.
A seemingly different Thoroughbred squad took over when play resumed.
After scoring on their first possession of the half, NewCath took advantage of Gallatin miscues to get the win. Newport went up by 14 on Franzen's 15-yard touchdown throw to Smith that was set up by Gray's interception and 23-yard return to the Wildcats' 22 yard line.
Gallatin's next drive ended with a high snap on a punt attempt, giving NewCath the ball 19 yards from the end zone. Two plays later, Franzen hit Wyatt Boberg from 13 yards out and the rout was on. NewCath added their final score with just over five minutes remaining when Franzen capped another short drive with a 1-yard run to seal the win.
Gallatin, held scoreless since the first quarter, scored at the final gun on a 17-yard Chapman pass to Nate McCoy for the final tally.
"That's how we should have been playing all along," Wagner said of his squad's second-half dominance. "Give them credit for the first half. They came out and played hard like we knew they were going to. This was big for them — the first time ever in the regional final? We knew we'd get their best shot."
With Friday's win, NCC will host Somerset next Friday in the 2A semifinals. That was hard to imagine earlier in the season, when the defending state champions started the season 1-4.
After opening with a win against Ashland Blazer, NCC dropped its next four games to larger schools, ending with drubbings at the hands of Simon Kenton (30-7) and Dixie Heights (36-7). Since then, NewCath rebounded with eight-straight wins, including wins in its last three games by a combined score of 117-26 over playoff opponents.
And title hopes are bright again.
"It got tough at times, playing larger schools and in one case you're down by five scores. You begin to have doubts. But we knew all we had to do was stick together and we would find our way back here," Franzen said.
at GALLATIN 6-0-0-6—6
N-Sutkamp 20 run (pass failed)
GC-Lawrence 29 pass from Chapman (kick failed)
N-J. Smith 29 pass from Franzen (Caudill kick)
N-J. Smith 15 pass from Franzen (Caudill kick)
N-Boberg 13 pass from Franzen (Caudill kick)
N-Franzen 1 run (Caudill kick)
GC-McCoy 17 pass from Chapman (time expired)
RECORDS: Newport Central Catholic 9-4, Gallatin County 10-3.