Linebacker Dom Purcell returned an interception for a touchdown and quarterback AJ McAninch shredded Celina’s secondary for 264 yards passing as Watterson fought out of an early hole and into the Division III state title game.
Xenia, OH – By the time the celebrations and tears had subsided in and around Paul Adams Stadium Friday, it was evident that Bishop Watterson had a bigger, tougher, deeper, more balanced and simply more talented football team than upstart Celina. That assessment was not so evident in the first 14 minutes of a Division III state semifinal, however.
“They came out and punched us in the mouth,” Watterson coach Brian Kennedy said afterward.
Fortunately for Kennedy’s Eagles, they had plenty of counterpunch left in them after negotiating and adjusting to the initial shock and awe of Celina standout running back Braylon Gabes.
After nearly falling into a bottomless hole, Watterson scored 27 unanswered points and beat Celina, 27-14, punching its ticket to Canton for a state title game appearance against top-ranked, defending champion Toledo Central Catholic (14-0) at 3 p.m. Friday at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.
“It’s surreal, and that’s about the only way I can describe it now,” Kennedy said of the Eagles’ first title game appearance since 2010. That marked Watterson’s second championship (the other was in 2002) to complement three runner-up finishes (1972, 1999, 2001).
On the game’s opening drive, Celina (12-3) drove from its own 20 to the Watterson 1 in the blink of an eye with Gabes – often lined up in a Wildcat formation, utilizing run-pass option plays – ripping off gains of 17, 16 and 24 yards along the way.
But on second-and-goal, Gabes was thumped for a loss by C.J. Youell. Gabes was tackled for no gain on third down. On fourth down, Gabes was flushed toward the sideline and wobbled a short pass to Zander Jones, who bobbled it.
“Turns out, that was a huge, huge stop for us,” Kennedy said.
After a quick three-and-out, Celina was back in business near midfield. This time, it only took five plays to score as a 39-yard dash by Gabes led to his own 1-yard TD run.
Still trying to find a rhythm, Watterson went three-and-out again.
Celina used a flea-flicker – a backward pass to Bobby Morris, then a 65-yard bomb to Caleb Gabes (Braylon’s twin brother) – to set up another 1-yard TD run by Braylon Gabes to make it 14-0 Bulldogs just two minutes into the second quarter.
Mind you, this came against a Watterson defense allowing just 9.2 points per game.
“We came out a little less focused than we should have been,” Watterson quarterback A.J. McAninch said. “We just had to settle down a little and get the ball into playmakers’ hands.”
Added Kennedy: “We’ve overcome adversity all year long, so I wasn’t worried about that. I felt like we had to get back to basics a bit, though.”
Watterson responded with a desperately-needed 10-play, 80-yard scoring drive. McAninch completed passes to three different receivers, the big one being a 34-yarder to Cal Mangini. Zack Weber plowed in from a yard out.
The Eagles forced a three-and-out of their own and took over at their own 20 with 3:18 left in the half. McAninch, an All-Ohio pitcher who has signed with Marshall, used his powerful right arm and mobility to complete four passes on a tying score. He connected with Mangini on a 9-yard TD.
“A.J. may be a Division I baseball player, but he’s a heck of a quarterback, too,” Kennedy said. “Honestly, I was finally able to exhale after we got that defensive stop before that drive. Let’s face it: We feel pretty good going into halftime tied. It could have been 28-0.”
After the magnificent start, Celina managed just 10 yards of offense in the second quarter…and it was about to get worse.
On its opening drive of the second half, Watterson drove deep into Celina territory but settled for a 22-yard field goal by Rudy Kessinger.
On Celina’s next drive, Braylon Gabes – who gained 121 yards on just 13 carries in the first half – was blasted by Weber on an incomplete pass and apparently suffered a game-ending concussion.
“It’s a shame that happened,” Kennedy said. “He was the best football player we’d played against all year.”
Gabes came in with over 2,000 all-purpose yards and 32 touchdowns. as a runner (1,324 yards), receiver (500), passer, return specialist and defensive back. The Bulldogs also lost another key offensive weapon in receiver Zander Jones (ankle) and linebacker Tucker Ashley (knee) to injuries.
Kessinger tacked on a 40-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter to make it 20-14.
McAninch connected with Mangini on a 43-yard pass play, but Mangini fumbled through the end zone for a touchback, trying to extend the ball over the goal line.
Given another reprieve, Celina went to the air, but All-Ohio linebacker Dom Purcell picked off Morris and returned it 45 yards for a touchdown with 6:06 left. Weber and Braxton Rundio added interceptions of their own in the final five minutes to seal the win.
“Celina just came out with a real good offensive scheme and caught us off guard a little bit,” said Purcell, a Navy commit who enhanced his Mr. Football candidacy with another terrific game. He is one of eight finalists for the award.
“We made a few adjustments at halftime, mostly in reading our keys and getting on the same page. We felt like we were the better team, and once we got a few stops and made some plays on offense, we were fine. The feeling is awesome. This is what your play for, to get to the state championship game.”
In one of his finest efforts of the season, McAninch completed 16 of 23 passes for 264 yards. Mangini made eight receptions for 115 yards.
“I’m kind of in my element when I’m running around and making throws,” McAninch said. “They were covering us tightly on the outside so we tried to go over the middle and had a lot of success there.”