STE. GENEVIEVE – With emotion etched on his face, Ste. Genevieve coach Jay Pope took a moment to collect his thoughts and steal a quick glance at sleeping six-month-old daughter Ellie.
In his third season since taking over a hometown program, Pope recognized the meaning that Friday night held within a long-term mission of restoring the Dragons to former prominence.
Ste. Genevieve protected a fragile one-point cushion with two defensive stops in the closing minutes, and upset sixth-ranked conference and district rival Central 21-20.
“We talked to the kids coming into the season that our program is at a tipping point. We felt like we were one big win away from getting Ste. Gen. football back to being Ste. Gen. football,” Pope said. “We’ve been all talk for two years, and this year, felt like that it was make it or break it time
“They came out and played their hearts out. It’s emotional to me for personal reasons, but for these guys, I think they’ve just been tired of being bullied by [the Rebels] because they are an elite team.”
Sophomore quarterback Luke Ferranto threw touchdown passes to Wyatt Springkamper and Aiden Meyer for the Dragons, whose defensive front seven registered four sacks.
Ste. Genevieve (4-1, 2-0) had dropped 15 of the previous 17 head-to-head meetings, but held on this time despite committing an inordinate total of 17 penalties.
Central (3-2, 1-1) hoped to complete a remarkable comeback in the fourth quarter, but a final heave into double coverage deflected off leaping receiver Caden Casey at the 5-yard line.
The Rebels battled without injured all-state quarterback and safety Casen Murphy. Kannon Harlow was on the field for just one snap a week after hurting an ankle against Cape Central.
Jobe Bryant made his second start at quarterback while also dealing with obvious pain, and delivered several athletic highlights amid reduced mobility.
Running back Jaxon Jones also took a significant number of snaps in a new wrinkle, but a second straight loss has left Central seeking answers ahead of a marquee clash with Valle Catholic.
“Jobe has taken a pounding over the last two weeks, and you could tell he was beat up. He wasn’t running as well, and couldn’t practice all week,” Central coach Kory Schweiss said. “It showed a lot out of him tonight to do what he did under the circumstances when he could hardly walk this week. I had to get Jaxon ready, and he’s gassed from running sideline to sideline on every defensive play.”
Ste. Genevieve contained the still elusive Bryant early on, and allowed less than 100 yards in the first half, even though Casey covered a chunk of 60 in one stellar effort.
Springkamper scored on a 6-yard jet sweep just before halftime, and consecutive tackles for loss by defensive ends Paul Taylor and Ayden White sent a 21-6 game to the locker room.
Ferranto was 11-of-17 passing for 168 yards, and rescued that drive from holding and personal foul flags with a deep 34-yard toss that Mason Nix caught on a smooth adjustment.
“We were well aware that they would have a couple of their elite cover guys out. So we knew that we would have to attack them on the edges,” Pope said. “Jaxon Jones is as good of a middle linebacker as we’ll ever see at our level. We had to beat him outside and mess with his eyes. We were doing some false pull stuff just to get him out of place and maybe gain an extra step.”
The Dragons then recovered an onside kick to begin the third quarter in Central territory. A penalty on Schweiss for protesting the technique moved the ball down to the 33.
But the determined Rebels stood firm for the remainder of the game. A switch to sophomore Chad Cosby at cornerback limited space for Ste. Genevieve along the sidelines.
“We did not come out ready to play, and that was disappointing. You could easily tell the difference in the first and second halves, and that’s on me,” Schweiss said. “We made adjustments in personnel. It was a physical game, and we knew they would try to exploit the corner.”
Jones pounced on a Ferranto fumble following another holding call against the Dragons, but Central promptly went three-and-out on the ensuing series.
The Rebels were in danger of falling farther behind on a turnover, as center Logan Murray sailed a snap over Bryant that linebacker Justin Schwent scooped and returned to the Central 33.
Ferranto gained 21 yards on a keeper to the 12, but another of the 10 holding infractions by the Dragons halted their progress. An illegal formation penalty negated a made 29-yard field goal for a potential three-possession lead, and Bryant Schwent slid a subsequent 34-yard attempt wide left.
Central capitalized on the reprieve with an immediate scoring strike, as Bryant took the ball in motion from a slot and found Casey all alone down the right side for an 84-yard touchdown pass.
Bryant sprinted to the corner of the end zone for the two-point conversion, bringing the Rebels within 21-14 and quieting the home crowd with 11:33 remaining.
Matt Manion sacked Ferranto on the next Ste. Genevieve drive, and Bryant cashed in on favorable starting field position at the Dragons’ 39.
Bryant slashed up the middle for a 16-yard run, and Casey came back toward the ball for a sensational 17-yard touchdown catch on a dive after Bryant was flushed from the pocket.
The lack of a consistent kicker compelled Central to try a two-point conversion for the lead, but Jones was stopped by Isaiah Basler on a keeper with exactly six minutes left.
“In the second half, I feel like I tightened up, just trying to preserve the lead,” Pope said. “That two-point stand was a defining play, not just for our season, but also for where we can get back to.”
The momentum stayed with Central as Bryant leaped to snatch a one-handed interception two plays later, and Casey caught a slant pass for 26 yards to the Dragons’ 30.
But the Ste. Genevieve defense showed up again after shining throughout the first half. Justin Schwent tackled Bryant for a loss on first down, and Dalton McBride sacked him on a fourth-and-4 play.
“We were nervous going into this season. We lost Will Vaughn and a couple of stalwarts that we have really leaned on,” Pope said. “We won the lottery when Paul Taylor came in and said he wanted to play football… He is an elite athlete and has helped that D-line. And Ayden White on the other side has just done a phenomenal job of taking coaching and being a great human being and fundamental football player as well.”
Bryant completed 6-of-12 overall for 146 yards, and Jones was 4-for-4 on shorter tosses. The Rebels attempted only three passes during the first half.
Ste. Genevieve expended nearly all of the play clock by design, as Pope and his coaching staff hoped to keep the Central playmakers off the field as much as possible.
“We just have to find ways to get more of our guys involved with the offense,” Schweiss said. “I have been spoiled, because when everyone was healthy, we could spread the ball around to whoever. Now I’m trying to get the ball to certain guys, and need to let the offense take care of itself.”
Springkamper provided runs of 11 and 15 yards on the game’s opening drive, and Ferranto found Meyer for an 18-yard catch and quick 7-0 advantage.
The teams followed by trading stops on third-down tackles for loss by Taylor and Alex Ikemeyer, and the Dragons got a three-and-out prior to extending their lead.
Ferranto attacked a gap for a 22-yard run, and trumped tackles in the backfield by Nathan Weinhold and Jones by connecting on three 12-yard passes in a span of four plays.
Springkamper caught a bubble screen near the left sideline, and shrugged off multiple hits before powering into the end zone for a 14-0 advantage.
“The kids were ready in the first half, and that was clear,” Pope said. “We were able to execute a lot better and more freely. We were the underdog and had nothing to lose.”
Casey tallied 141 yards on four receptions, and energized Central by running right on a reverse and cutting back across the field for 60 yards to the Ste. Genevieve 1.
The Rebels needed all four downs to break through as Bryant scored squeezed through a crowd ahead of a missed conversion try with 4:33 to play in the second quarter.
Jones made 10 tackles, and Weinhold added nine to pace the Central defense. Ikemeyer chipped in seven stops, Sammy Callaway totaled six more, and Cole Presswood earned a sack.
Ferranto had a team-high 91 rushing yards on 18 carries, and Jack Farlow picked up 47 yards on nine attempts for Ste. Genevieve. Tucker Reed equaled Meyer and Farlow with three catches apiece.
The Dragons have an inside track to home-field advantage in the Class 3, District 1 playoffs with four games remaining, and will travel to Potosi on Friday.