Keeping tabs on the other contenders for this year’s Class 2-A state football championship, DeSales High School coach Harold Davis barely blinked as he saw Newport Central Catholic stumble to an 0-4 start.
“We’re sitting there watching them at 0-4 and going, ‘They’re going to be there. There’s no question,’ ” Davis said. “They’ve played that tough schedule, and it’s worked for them for years.”
Indeed, the Thoroughbreds are back in the state final.
Newport Central Catholic (8-5) has won eight of its past nine games and will face DeSales (13-1) at 3:30 p.m. EST Friday in the Class 2-A championship game at Houchens Industries/L.T. Smith Stadium in Bowling Green.
NewCath has reached a state final for the 10th time in the past 15 seasons, having won Class A crowns in 2005 and 2006 and Class 2-A titles in 2010 and 2012. DeSales beat NewCath 34-26 in last year’s 2-A final.
“They’re similar to last year,” Davis said. “They’re just a very disciplined team. They don’t make a lot of mistakes. … It’s going to be a very tough game.”
The Thoroughbreds stumbled out of the gate against several big-school powers in Northern Kentucky, falling to Cooper, Campbell County, Simon Kenton and Dixie Heights. Cooper (Class 5-A semifinals), Simon Kenton (6-A quarterfinals) and Dixie Heights (6-A final) all made deep postseason runs.
Coach Dan Wagner said part of the issue – along with the tough schedule – was breaking in a new quarterback in sophomore Patrick Henschen.
“He’s grown into the position now,” Wagner said. “He doesn’t have to win the game for us. He just has to manage the game, and he’s done a very good job of that. Our offensive line wasn’t very good starting out, either, but those guys have jelled and are working together now.”
Henschen has passed for 1,409 yards and 12 touchdowns, but NewCath’s offense starts with the running game and junior back Jacob Smith. He has rushed for 1,477 yards and 25 touchdowns.
“We have good speed, but this kid has great speed,” Davis said.
DeSales held Smith to 56 yards on 16 carries in last year’s state final, but NewCath had to go to its passing game after falling behind 34-13 late in the third quarter.
“We have to be able to run the ball a little more than we did last year,” Wagner said. “There were about five plays in that game that could have gone our way but didn’t. Give the credit to (DeSales), but if those go our way it’s a completely different outcome.”
Davis is confident in a defense that hasn’t allowed more than 17 points in any game this season and is giving up an average of just 3.3 points in the playoffs.
Senior defensive end Bryant Pirtle, who has committed to Western Kentucky, leads the Colts in tackles (77), sacks (17 ½) and fumble recoveries (five). Davis also has been pleased with a secondary led by seniors Logan McDonough (45 tackles, two interceptions) and Austin Craig (30 tackles, four interceptions) and sophomore Alec Brothers (75 tackles, two interceptions).
“It’s tough to do anything against their defense,” Wagner said. “They’ve very aggressive and very quick. Their second and third levels are very good, and their front isn’t bad, either.”
•DeSales could be without leading rusher Matt Ruxer (666 yards, eight touchdowns) after he re-injured an ankle in last week’s 14-7 victory over Murray.
Davis said Ruxer’s status will be a game-time decision.
“When he gets out there and runs around, we’ll see how he does,” Davis said.
If Ruxer is unavailable, Pirtle likely would become the featured running back for the Colts. He has rushed for 582 yards and eight touchdowns this season.
•For the second straight week DeSales practiced Tuesday and Wednesday on the turf field at Sacred Heart because of the muddy conditions on its own on-campus practice field.
Davis credited Sacred Heart softball coach Bob Wheatley with making the arrangement. Wheatley’s son, Michael, is a junior defensive back for the Colts.
Jason Frakes can be reached at (502) 582-4046 and followed on Twitter @kyhighs.