PARK HILLS – Central football has thrived upon the pure athleticism of several familiar faces during its rebound from mid-season injuries and adversity.
With the increased urgency of state playoff pressure compounded by a haunting historic footnote on Saturday, 20-year head coach Kory Schweiss appealed to their tenacity.
The Rebels scored 26 unanswered points in the second half, and reached the Class 3 semifinal round for the first time in program history with a 50-28 triumph over St. Francis Borgia.
Kannon Harlow and Jobe Bryant sealed the outcome with electrifying interception returns, and the Rebels advanced to face longtime power Blair Oaks next Saturday in Wardsville, Mo.
“We’ve been working for this ever since the sixth grade,” Harlow said. “Just to create this brotherhood and be a part of it, I’m very grateful. All glory to God.”
Borgia opened the third quarter with a five-minute scoring drive. Junior running back Hayden Wolfe broke tackles on gains of 11, 13 and 18 yards before his 1-yard run created a 28-24 lead.
The Central defense responded with consecutive three-and-out series, and sacked Koen Zellmann three times while winning the turnover margin 3-1 overall.
Senior quarterback Casen Murphy threw for 270 yards, and made an equally crucial impact on the ground once Central altered its offensive strategy at halftime.
Murphy sparked an 80-yard drive with a 17-yard keeper, then lobbed a pass down the left sideline where Caden Casey leaped above two defenders for a 36-yard reception.
A screen pass to Jaxon Jones set up a 1-yard scoring run by Bryant — his second touchdown of the game — and the Rebels were ahead to stay at 30-28.
The Knights punted following sacks by Chad Cosby and Logan Murray, but stopped a fourth-and-7 scramble in the red zone after Bryant took an option play 31 yards down the left side.
Central began its next drive at the Borgia 43, and Murphy had a defining moment when he powered through three defenders and moved the chains on a fourth-and-6 run.
“Casen might be one of the toughest kids I’ve ever coached. He’s had two torn elbows and a torn knee within the last year,” Schweiss said. “I asked him at halftime, ‘We have been holding you back. If we go empty set, can you run the football.’ He said ‘Coach, I’ve got you.'”
Senior guard Sam Callaway lined up in the backfield moments later, and plowed across the goal line from 4 yards out with 6:10 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Bryant flipped the ensuing two-point conversion pass to Harlow, and the Rebels could sense a pending celebration with a two-possession lead at 38-28.
“Things started well offensively, but not defensively,” Schweiss said. “[Borgia] got the first stop of the game against us, then scored and took the lead to start the second half. I think we responded to that adversity a little differently than we would have if we hadn’t faced so much earlier in the season.”
Borgia was compelled to throw, given the dwindling clock, and brought in back-up quarterback Jace Mittler after Zeltmann suffered a cramp on a sack by Harlow.
Harlow easily picked off a fourth-and-long pass, and dodged several players while crossing the field and racing to the right pylon for a 55-yard touchdown return.
“Once I knew they were going to pass, I just dropped back into coverage,” Harlow said. “Our linemen took care of business and made him scramble, so I just had to make a play.”
Jase Shofner and Nathan Kell made clutch receptions as Borgia tried to mount a late comeback, but the latest incredible display by Bryant put any doubt to rest.
Bryant jumped in front of receiver Tate Marquart to snatch a one-handed overhead interception, and saw 87 yards of open space for the final dagger with 3:00 to play.
Harlow and Bryant each made a game-high six catches. Central (9-3) posted its sixth consecutive win, and snapped a gloomy 0-9 record in state quarterfinal games all time.
“It feels great after all the adversity we went through with injuries and having people out,” said Bryant, who added 89 rushing yards on just eight carries. “The fact that we could come back stronger and get past this point is grace to God. We just want to keep going.”
Murphy provided 74 rushing yards, finished 16-of-29 passing, and connected over the middle with Braydon Berry for an 80-yard scoring strike on the third play of the game.
Central, which scrapped its ineffective kicking game earlier this season, ultimately carried a 24-21 lead into halftime after three straight two-point conversion attempts proved successful.
Borgia overcame three penalties and a bad snap to progress 59 yards on its opening 12-play scoring march. Marquart had a key reception for 12 yards on third-and-10.
Callaway stuffed a running play ahead of a false start penalty, but a 9-yard pass on third down set up a touchdown sneak by Zeltmann to make it 8-7.
Schweiss mixed several trick plays into an eventual and sometimes perplexing first half. A few of them worked perfectly while others backfired.
Perhaps his biggest gamble of the day occurred on the second Central possession. Bryant cut behind right tackle Nathan Weinhold to prolong that drive on fourth-and-2 from his own 30.
Harlow found an opening in the middle on a screen a few plays later for a 39-yard touchdown, and Bryant added the conversion for a 16-7 advantage.”
I don’t get caught up in legacy. Each year is different. I just wanted to win this game for these kids and all the kids who played before them,” Schweiss said. “Tradition goes a long way, and they helped build something that wasn’t here before.”
Borgia balanced its rushing attack with short passes, and Marquart highlighted the next drive with a 2-22-yard catch before Zeltmann scored on a 5-yard keeper.
Central quickly struck again when a 35-yard catch by Harlow preceded 33-yard touchdown run by Bryant, but Will Hoer returned the ensuing kickoff 76 yards to the end zone.
Although Murphy made a leaping 28-yard catch from Bryant on double pass, the Rebels stalled for the first time in the game following a sack by Sam Tuepker.
Casey made his third interception over the last two contests on a tipped throw, but a series of three quick laterals turned into a fumble that Borgia recovered just before halftime.
“Instead of just being true to what we do, I probably tried to get too cute,” Schweiss said. “They gave us a light box, and I should have just run the ball against it like we did in the third quarter.
“They switched fronts on us, and were playing man-to-man on our receivers with coverage over the top, which takes away what we like to do. But at the same time, we were able to show that we are pretty good at running the football.”
Jones anchored the Rebels at inside linebacker with 13 tackles while Murray added six more.
Zeltmann compiled 61 rushing yards with two scores, and completed 7-of-12 passes for 71 yards. Wolfe had a team-high 86 yards on 15 carries for the Knights.
Blair Oaks eliminated Westminster Christian 47-29 for its 10th consecutive victory on Friday.