PERRY TWP.  With its defense and special teams leading the way, Canton Central Catholic was finally able to beat the unbeatable.

Coldwater, which had won the last four Division V state championships - among six in the past decade - and played in the last eight title tilts, had vexed Central the past two seasons, winning lopsided decisions in the championship game.

Having earned a third shot at the Cavaliers, the Crusaders pulled together in all three phases of the game and scored a 16-13 win thanks to an 8-yard touchdown pass from Jack Murphy to Tee Rupp in the closing moments. Coldwater couldn’t counter and in the final of seven state title games on the weekend, the Central sideline erupted in a raucous celebration.

“I was excited for our kids and coaches … just with everything you go through in the course of a year and all the struggles we had early, I’m just so excited for those guys and the past Crusaders, not just the past two years, but going way back,” third-year head coach Jeff Lindesmith said.

Lindesmith, who has led his team to the state championship game in each of his three seasons, knew coming into the game that it would take his team’s absolute best to overcome Coldwater, which hails from a Midwest Athletic Conference that sent teams to three different state championship games and won the title in Division VI (Maria Stein Marion Local).

The game looked for much of the first half as if it might be the lowest-scoring state title game in some time, as the two evenly matched teams battled to a scoreless tie until Central’s Dan Mills booted a 48-yard field goal late in the second quarter to stake his team to a 3-0 edge at intermission. Mills, who has battled minor leg injuries in recent weeks, proved clutch on the biggest stage and the Crusaders’ special teams were a huge part of not only this win, but the 10 that preceded it this season.

“That was a big boost for us right before the half, to get three huge points,” Lindesmith said.

Both offenses awakened in the second half with the championship tantalizingly close, with Coldwater using star quarterback Dlyan Thobe’s dual-threat abilities to rally from a 9-0 deficit in the third quarter to take a 13-9 lead in the final period. Thobe passed for the Cavaliers’ first touchdown and ran four yards for his team’s second score, which put the Crusaders behind for the first time all night with just 2:49 remaining on the clock.

Central got the ball back at its own 8 after the kickoff, putting itself 92 yards from making history and becoming the first team in the last five years to defeat Coldwater in the title game. Rupp made several big plays on the winning drive, including a diving catch to extend the drive and then the game winner, a dramatic 55-yard TD catch on which he caught a short pass along the sideline, broke one tackle before acrobatically making his way down the sideline, eluding a second defender and racing into the end zone for the winning score with just 58 seconds left.

Coldwater staged a dramatic final drive, reaching Central territory, but Brady Thompson snuffed out the desperation march with an interception in the end zone to seal the outcome. In those dramatic final moments, Central’s experience of playing in two straight state title games proved invaluable.

“I think your experience definitely helps you in that way and I saw a lot of guys who had played in those games the past two years and told them how proud I was of them,” Lindesmith said. “The more experience you have, the calmer you can be in those big moments. 

As the last state championship game of the weekend, the Division V title battle also brought the curtain down on the three-year run of Ohio Stadium as the host site for championship weekend. All seven championship games are slated to return to the renovated Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium next season, but the chance to win a title on what is as close to hallowed football ground as there is in Ohio was a memorable experience for Central.

After the game, as a slightly hoarse Lindesmith addressed his team - after they had hoisted the championship trophy, of course - he reminded them to savor the win, but also to make sure that it’s not the highlight of their lives as they move forward.

“I told them that I was proud of them and how they came together, but also that I don’t want this to be the greatest thing in their lives as they graduate and become employees, husbands and fathers,” Lindesmith said.

It was a dose of proper perspective and one that will likely stick with the Crusaders in the future, but for one night at least, football was center stage and Stark County had its first championship celebration in 16 years. 

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or andy.harris@thesuburbanite.com.
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