CINCINNATI -- The anticipation is as thick as Thanksgiving dinner gravy on North Bend Road this week.
For the first time since the Ohio high school football playoffs started in 1972, two Greater Catholic League South division teams are in the state semifinals in their respective divisions.
St. Xavier (8-5) plays Pickerington Central (12-1) in a Division I state semifinal at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Piqua. The Bombers are making their seventh trip to the state semifinals and the first trip to the state Final Four since 2011.
The Division I state final is scheduled for 8 p.m. Dec. 2 at Ohio Stadium.
La Salle (11-2) plays Whitehouse Anthony Wayne (10-3) at 7:30 p.m. Friday in a Division II state semifinal at Sidney. The Lancers are making their third consecutive state Final Four appearance and are trying to become the first Division II program to win three consecutive state titles.
The Division II state final is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Dec. 1 at Ohio Stadium.
Here is a closer look at both of these games:
The Bombers keep finding a way.
After two straight overtime wins at Hamilton the past two weeks, St. Xavier travels north on Interstate 75 for a matchup against Columbus-area power Pickerington Central on Friday night.
St. X is making its first trip to the state Final Four since 2011 when it lost to Pickerington Central in that round.
Although injuries have been a storyline all season for the Bombers, that seems to be revisionist history at this point of November.
St. X rallied to defeat the state’s No. 1-ranked team in Colerain and somehow found a way to come back after a late third-quarter 21-7 deficit against upstart Sycamore.
“With this crew, it’s been an interesting season, but God love them, they keep fighting,” St. X coach Steve Specht said.
Last week, St. X had 421 yards of total offense against Sycamore but just 14 passing yards after the first quarter.
But, senior quarterback Sean Clifford (Penn State commit) gave the Bombers’ offense a much-needed boost on the ground with a 40-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
Clifford also threw two touchdown passes between the fourth quarter and overtime session.
Watch for Clifford and junior quarterback Chase Wolf early in this game against a very talented Pickerington Central defense, which includes an athletic secondary that is similar to Colerain's.
St. X has also been led by junior running back/wide receiver Cameron Specht (559 yards receiving), junior wide receiver Andrew Wittrock (446 yards receiving) and senior Nicholas Moeller (387 yards receiving).
If the Bombers’ offense gets good production against Pickerington Central, which held Huber Heights Wayne to a season-low 14 points in the Region 3 final, it could be a good night for St. X.
“I want to improve this week from last week and that’s all that matters,” Steve Specht said.
If the St. X offense struggles early, the Bombers will certainly rely on senior punter Joshua Glaser, who has been excellent the past two weeks in placing opponents in precarious field position.
The St. X defense has been led by several players, including senior defensive back Carl Grimm (94 tackles) and senior linebacker Brady Stoll (70 tackles). Watch for junior defensive linemen Bobby Jefferson and Sean Mesue and what type of pressure they can get upfront.
Every time the Bombers are counted out, they respond with a rally this postseason.
"This season has been one for the ages," Specht said. "We have seen more bizarre things take place and I have truly been impressed with how our kids have responded and weathered the storms. It is really a special, special group of young men. I've told them to enjoy the experience because they have earned everything they have received this year."
Pickerington Central is quite familiar with Cincinnati-area teams having defeated Elder in the Skyline Chili Crosstown Showdown in August.
“We feel very fortunate to win the (Region 3) championship,” Pickerington Central coach Jay Sharrett told This Week News.
“We get a (regional championship) trophy, which gives us something to show for winning three playoff games. Now we get to face St. Xavier again. We’re a different team and they’re a different team.”
The Tigers’ defense is very athletic, led by junior defensive back Xavier Henderson, a Michigan State commit who was district defensive player of the year. He has seven interceptions.
Senior linebacker Kieren Douglas has committed to Army. Junior linebacker Trenton Gillison and junior defensive back Jeremiah Wood are among other players to watch on defense.
Offensively, the Tigers are reminiscent of Warren Central and are very skilled. They have an excellent running back in Morgan Ellison and a running quarterback with Darius Coker. They are also big on the offensive line.
The Lancers (11-2) have their eyes set on Columbus once again in an attempt to become the only Division II to win three consecutive titles.
But before any discussion of a state final, the Lancers play Whitehouse Anthony Wayne in a state semifinal Friday night at Sidney.
Whitehouse Anthony Wayne (10-3), located 10 miles southwest of Toledo, is making its first trip to the state final four.
According to the Toledo Blade, this has been a surprise run for Wayne under first-year coach Andy Brungard. The irony is that Brungard was the Perrysburg defensive coordinator when La Salle defeated Perrysburg in the 2015 state semifinals.
But the Wayne players and coaches don’t feel like their success has been a surprise.
“We knew we could do something big like this,” senior running back/quarterback Evan Brown told the Blade.
The Wayne offense starts with Brown, a Bowling Green baseball commit.
La Salle coach Jim Hilvert said Wayne likes to run the ball about 90 percent of the time despite a spread formation. They are similar to what the Lancers saw with Christian Brothers (Memphis, Tennessee) earlier this season.
Brown has 1,594 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns. He’s also thrown for 556 yards and two touchdowns.
“We have to stop them and make it second or third down and long,” Hilvert said.
Wayne’s defense has been led by Johnny Rupp (141 tackles) and Nolan Anderson (94 tackles).
La Salle is ranked No. 9 in the Midwest by MaxPreps, but you won't find the Lancers resting on any rankings.
Hilvert said if La Salle plays well in all three phases of the game, he’s likes his team’s chances. La Salle hasn't given up a first-quarter touchdown since Nov. 4.
Offensively, junior quarterback Griffin Merritt continues to be a strong leader for the offense. He’s thrown for 1,883 yards and 20 touchdowns. He hasn’t thrown an interception since Oct. 21.
“He’s learned from experience each game during the season,” Hilvert said. “Whatever the game throws at him, it’s not bigger than him.”
The Lancers also have plenty of experience in big-game situations like senior running back/free safety Jarell White, senior running back Christian Turner and junior wide receiver Josh Whyle.
Defensively, senior Da’Meank Brandon had an 83-yard punt return for a touchdown last week. Sophomore linebacker Brody Ingle had a game-high nine tackles.
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