Three miscues proved critical to Watterson in a 27-7 loss to bigger, faster Toledo Central Catholic, which won its second straight title and ran its win streak to 31 games.
Canton, OH – A guy who made a whole lot of tackles In the Division III state championship game Friday needed precious few words to answer a post-game question directed at Watterson coach Brian Kennedy and/or players.
When a reporter asked if the Eagles had seen or faced a team with the speed of Toledo Central Catholic, senior linebacker Dominic Purcell quickly remarked in a deadpan tone, “I don’t think so.”
The answer was obvious to the 4,342 fans in Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium who watched Central Catholic harass Watterson to no end during a 27-7 victory. It marked the 31st straight win for the top-ranked Fighting Irish, who captured the Division II crown a year ago.
Defensively, the Eagles did their best to hold down the explosiveness of Central Catholic, which came in having rushed for 3,624 yards on a whopping 6.5-yard average.
Watterson, however, was badly overmatched on offense. Central Catholic relentlessly pressured Eagles quarterback AJ McAninch, who had little time to push the ball downfield against the Fighting Irish’s talented backs and linebackers.
A strong-armed All-Ohio candidate who has signed to pitch at Marshall, McAninch completed 20 of 39 passes for just 145 yards, was intercepted twice and sacked four times. On 20 rushing attempts, Watterson had minus-6 yards.
“Their quarterback was under duress, and we had them out of rhythm,” TCC coach Greg Dempsey said. “They had a high-powered offense, but we were able to get timely sacks and pressures today. We had an outstanding game plan in place.”
Even with the disparity in total yardage (318-139) and three costly miscues by Watterson resulting in touchdowns for Toledo Central Catholic, the Eagles still had a chance to knock off the supposedly invincible Fighting Irish into the fourth quarter.
An apparent 12-yard touchdown pass from McAninch to Jake Uhlenhake was overturned by replay as booth officials determined the diving catch was trapped.
McAninch then was sacked for a 13-yard loss on fourth down, and Marquan Braswell promptly broke a 72-yard run that effectively sealed the triumph for TCC.
“Some would say the score wasn’t indicative of what it was,” Dempsey said. “It was a four-quarter football game. I believe we had a little bit of luck go our way in the first half and I told the guys at halftime ‘let’s make some of our own in the second half.’ “
Kennedy echoed Dempsey’s assessment of the game.
“It was a tough one to take for us, but we played hard and never gave up,” he said. “We made some mistakes and they were able to capitalize on them. There were a few plays that could have gone either way, and they went their way. Take away three or four plays and it’s not 27-7.”
Watterson jumped out to a great start, scoring on its second series. Ben Uhlenhake capped a nine-play, 51-yard drive with an 8-yard TD run.
After a second straight defensive stop of a TCC offense scoring 40.2 points per game, the Eagles were brimming with momentum.
Kevin Arnold picked off McAninch near midfield and TCC cashed in, getting a 6-yard TD run from Braswell.
The second costly miscue by the Eagles occurred when Cal Mangini muffed a punt return deep into Watterson territory in the final minute of the half and the Irish recovered. That led to a 6-yard TD connection between Terry Collins to Sharard Vaughn at the 18-second mark to make it 14-7.
The third critical error happened on the opening series of the second half. An errant punt snap resulted in an 18-yard loss. Three plays later, Braswell was back in the end zone and it was 21-7.
“We shot ourselves in the foot several times and it got us in a hole,” Kennedy said. “It’s not a situation you want to be in against a team that talented.”
Braswell finished with 169 yards on 22 carries with two TDs, nearly half coming on the late breakaway run. The Fighting Irish leaned heavily on a huge offensive line.
“I didn’t think they were going to be as good as they were (up front), but they were,” Watterson two-way lineman Nate Kreuz said.
Said Dempsey, “We were very good in the trenches and that goes a long way in November and December.”
This marked the fifth state title for Central Catholic, which has become a perennial state power in the past two decades.
“These kids have been told since they were seven, eight, nine years old that they’d better win state championships,” Dempsey said. “They have huge standards they have to live up to. That’s a lot to put on a teenage kid, but our guys have lived up to it.”
A bright spot for Watterson in the defeat was Purcell, a 5-foot-11, 198-pound linebacker who made 21 tackles (2.5 for loss) with a sack and three quarterback pressures. The Ohio Mr. Football finalist and Navy commit broke an all-divisions championship game record for tackles, set in 1981 by Paul Cost of Newark Catholic.
Kennedy has repeatedly called Purcell, who finished the season with 202 tackles, the heart and soul of the Watterson team.
“We had a couple down years, but in the last two years we got things back where we want again,” Purcell said. “I hope this is the standard again going forward.”
Regardless of the result, senior linebacker Braxton Rundio said his classmates will relish this magical run forever.
“This was always our goal since we were little kids,” he said. “It didn’t turn out the way we wanted, but this is an experience none of us will ever forget.”