Central Catholic's Jermiah Braswell , left, Ryan Keiste, center, and Kea' Shaun Phillips celebrate a defensive play near the end of the game. THE BLADE/JUSTIN WAN
FINDLAY — Central Catholic grabbed an early lead and hung on late to take a 17-14 victory over Trotwood-Madison Friday night in a Division III state football semifinal played at Findlay's Donnell Stadium.
The win sends the Fighting Irish (12-2) to their third state championship game in 10 seasons and ended Trotwood's run of reaching four straight state finals.
Central will play second-ranked Athens (14-0), which defeated two-time defending D-III state champion Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary 34-31 in Friday's other state semifinal.
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The D-III final is set for Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Ohio Stadium in Columbus.
A couple of firsts made the difference for eighth-ranked Central, which scored on the game's first possession on a 15-yard play-action pass from quarterback Marcus Winters to Lucas Beauch 4 minutes, 22 seconds into the game.
It was Beauch's first pass reception of the season.
“Getting that first score was important to get some confidence going against a team that had been to the state finals the last four years,” Dempsey said.
“Doing that against a team with that kind of size and speed and talent was important.”
The Irish then took a 10-0 lead on Brock Quinlan's 22-yard field goal 2:20 before halftime. It was Quinlan's first field goal attempt of the year.
The seventh-ranked Rams (12-2) needed to go just 35 yards to get on the scoreboard for the first time in the third quarter.
Freshman running back Raveion Hargrove (12 carries, 64 yards) scored on a 25-yard run around left end with 6:51 left in that quarter to pull the Rams within 10-7.
But Winters (14 carries, 114 yards) made the play of the game and scored what proved to be the game-winning points when he swept around right end and sprinted free for a 90-yard touchdown with 5:57 left in the third.
“I told him, ‘Let’s break off a 90-yard touchdown drive.’ ” Dempsey said of Winters’ key play. “I just didn’t know it was going to happen like that. Marcus saw a crease, and Michael Warren made a huge block coming around the corner there. Then Marcus made that great move at the end so that the guy couldn’t get him from behind.”
Winters knew that was a crucial point in the game, and he delivered.
“We had to step our offense up to get a score there,” Winters said. “It means a lot because we get to go play for a state championship, and hopefully we win.
“[The Rams’ defense] was tough and fast and strong, and they got to the ball quick. We just had to finish our blocks and run the ball harder.”
Central outgained the Rams 287-134 in total offense.
Tre'Von Wade carried 15 times for 91 yards, and Michael Warren rushed 21 times for 63 yards for the Irish.
Winters now has 1,065 rushing yards, giving Central three 1,000-yard rushers. Warren is at 2,049 yards, and Wade 1,667.
Trotwood-Madison added its second TD with 1:28 left in the third quarter, this time needing to move just 11 yards after Central punted from its end zone, and Ryon Lucas returned Zach Hoover's punt 24 yards.
Breland Copsy scored three plays later on a three-yard run, pulling his Rams within 17-14.
Trotwood would have two fourth-quarter possessions with a chance to take the lead, but the Irish defense rose to the occasion each time.
Rams quarterback Messiah DeWeaver threw incomplete on fourth down from his 43 with 1:44 remaining, and the Irish ran out the clock to earn their second trip to the state finals in three years.
Central won Division II championships in 2005 and 2012, beating defending state champion Trotwood-Madison 16-12 in the latter title game.
The Rams were also state runners-up in 2010 (in D-II) and last year (in D-III).
“That’s a big, physical team, and they came to play,” Rams coach Jeff Graham said of Central. “They just out-executed us. Hats off to TCC. They played a good game.”
DeWeaver, a University of Michigan commit, was just 6-of-21 passing for 36 yards.
“We did everything that our coaches told us to do,” Irish junior linebacker Zach Sandwisch said. “We kept on going. That’s how our defense is. We’re relentless. We go 120 percent every time.
“Getting down to The Shoe [Ohio Stadium] is going to be awesome. That’s been my dream.”
It was a Sandwisch hit and fumble recovery that set up Quinlan’s field goal.