FINDLAY — For the second straight season, Lima Central Catholic has overcome injuries to make a long run in the postseason.
Last year, the T-Birds lost all-state running back Shaun Thomas and made it to the state semifinals. This year, LCC lost quarterback Evan Unruh in week seven but are one step away from making it to back to the state semifinals when they face Hopewell-Loudon at Findlay’s Donnell Stadium at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Coming into the playoffs, LCC, dealing with injuries other than Unruh’s stumbled in its regular season finale to Fort Loramie, and then struggled in its playoff opener against Crestview 13-7. But since then the team has been on a roll, downing Upper Scioto Valley, 47-14, and then followed it up with a 61-26 victory over Edon last week.
“I think we have gotten healthier,” LCC head coach Scott Palte said. “In week 10 we had some guys dinged up and I think our health has improved and we have been playing better. That first one (playoff game) is never easy but once you get that you kind of exhale and relax. That first playoff game was tough Crestview is a good football team and it was a tough game but the kids have kind of relaxed and have played well.”
Sophomore Carson Parker has stepped in at the quarterback role and has continued to improve week after week. In the playoffs, the LCC signal caller was rushed for 460 yards and six touchdowns including a 235 yard, four touchdown performance against Edon. Through the air, Parker is 17- of 34 for 234 yards and one touchdown.
Palte points out that in the first seven weeks of the season he was playing receiver and not taking many snaps but has come into his own after taking over behind the center.
“I think he has gotten better each week,” Palte said. “He had to get timing again and just kind of get in sync and I think in the last couple of weeks he has started to find his groove. He is in midseason form now this will be his seventh week start and now he is comfortable and I think he has done a great job.
“He is just a sophomore but he has played quarterback his whole football career since midget level. Earlier in the season we had him at upback and block and run route and he did a really good job. He was our leading receiver and then had to switch back to quarterback so he had a lot to handle for a sophomore but he as been a great leader and a hard worker and has done a great job.”
Parker is not the only one producing. Running back Keiran Bailey has also been a major factor in the T-Birds’ success, rushing for 288 yards and two touchdowns.
Palte said the offensive line, led by Jacob Lauck, has been physical throughout the season and are getting the passing and running blocks to move the ball.
“They have really been getting on people and with Carson being athletic and Keiran has done a great job and picked up his game the last half of the season. He has 940 yards or somewhere in that area and Quintel Peoples has done a good job on the edges for us. I think all those guys have come along.”
Defensively, the T-Birds, led by Connor Gephart, are getting the job done. Despite a cast on his hand, the first team All-Northwest Ohio District first teamer continues to be a force on the defensive line in curtailing the Edon passing game. Gephart broke his hand in week 10 and continued to play.
“Edon, one of the best passing teams in the area, came into the game the Bombers were averaging 43 points and the Thunderbirds held them to 12 points at halftime and gave up some late meaningless touchdowns.
He’s (Gephart) a tough kid and it is tough to play with one hand but he is a still a very disruptive player and a good leader,” Palte said. “He has had a really good year. Defensively in general, we did a great job last week. I thought making big plays with three interceptions in the first half against a quarterback who had thrown six all year. We have been physical up front and we want to continue that this week.”
It shows how versatile the T-Bird defense can be. In the prior two games, Crestview and Upper Scioto Valley came in with strong running games and LCC shut them both down and allowed 21 points between the two of them. Against Crestview, they allowed 155 yards on the ground and against USV, the T-Birds limited 198 rushing yards. Coming into the game, the Rams were averaging better than 300 yards a contest.
“We have seen multiple styles and we have gone from double tight end power to shotgun spread last week,” Palte said. “Obviously that has helped us prepare for anybody. I think our guys have done a great job defensively. We had a lot of guys back on defense and all have really improved.”
The T-Birds will be tested against Hopewell-Loudon who comes into the game averaging 41.6 points a game in its thre playoff matchups and giving up an average of 15.3 points a contest. For the season, the Chieftains averaged 38.5 points an game and gave up an average of 11.7 points a game.
Chieftan quarterback Ashton Bour has thrown from 1,766 yards and 21 touchdowns with 4 interceptions and has rushed for 702 yards and 13 touchdowns. Leading the running game is Hayden Welly who has rushed for 1,431 yards adn 26 touchdowns.
The Chieftains leading receiver is Sheeron Jones who has hauled in 42 catches for 888 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“Hopewell is a really good team,” Palte said. “They have a lot of guys from last year that reached the regional finals. They are physical and a really good, strong quarterback. They have a big running backs and speed on the outside. They are a complete team and well coached.
“Defensively, they are very multiple and very aggressive. It is a good team and we are going to have to play very well and get after it from the get-go.”
Last season, LCC beat Hopewell-Loudon in the 62-20 in the regional finals and the Chieftains might have a little revenge on their minds, but Palte said that this is a whole new year.
“I think when you are in the regional final I think you are going to be excited no matter who you are playing,” Palete said. “We have a whole bunch of new players who didn’t play in last year’s game and last year is last year. Things went our way early and it kind of snowballed and I think that was a rare happening. I think they are going to be excited and be ready to play and our team is excited and ready to play and this senior class has played with a chip on its shoulder all year and they really want to prove something this year and I think they are excited for that opportunity Saturday.”