By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
In many ways, it seems automatic, especially since 2000.
The Newport Central Catholic Thoroughbreds football team wins a region crown and finds itself playing for a state championship two weeks later. That has happened eight times since 2000 and 11 times following their 12 overall regional championships.
The defending Class 2A champion Thoroughbreds (9-4 overall) would love to make it 12 straight times in 13 state semifinal appearances and extend their eight-game winning streak. But they need to prove themselves to the most common state semifinal opponent in the 8-4 Somerset Briar Jumpers on Friday at 7 p.m at Newport Stadium.
The schools meet for the sixth time in history – all in the state semifinals since 1983. Somerset won the first meeting, 8-7 in 1983 before losing to Fort Knox in the Class AA title game.
But NewCath has won the previous four meetings on its way to four of its five state championships. The Thoroughbreds beat the Briar Jumpers in the AA semifinals in 1984 (17-0), 2005 (35-10), 2006 (40-24) and last year (27-18).
“We fully expect to take their best shot,” said Dan Wagner, NewCath Head Coach. “They were a lot like us earlier in the year. They’re starting to get healthy. That’s why they’re starting to play well so we know what we’re getting into. We had to go tooth and nail with them last year. It’s going to be that way this year.”
Somerset enters the game against the District 6 champions on a five-game winning streak. The Briar Jumpers will hit the road for the fourth consecutive playoff game. They beat mountain teams Betsy Layne (29-20), District 7 rival Middlesboro (19-13 in overtime) and District 8 champion Prestonsburg (28-21) on their way to a fifth consecutive region crown and 16th in school history. The Briar Jumpers also lost to eventual 2A state champion Covington Holy Cross on the same field in the state semifinals two years ago.
“The previous four years, we were at home (Clark Field) so this is a departure from the ‘norm,” said Robbie Lucas, Somerset Head Coach. “We have been in three consecutive tight games. Each of these games were not decided until the last few moments. Our kids have come from behind in the last two games to win. All that being said, We still haven’t put our best game together yet. We are certainly hoping that we put our best game together this week.”
Somerset finished with the third seed out of District 7 after finishing in a three-way tie for the crown with Danville and Middlesboro. Like Louisville Trinity and Madison Southern, Somerset played just nine games in the regular season.
“Our 10th game was canceled because of a miscommunication between myself and another coach,” Lucas said. “One of us got our dates mixed up. Not having a 10th game potentially cost us our home playoff games. We ended up third based on the point system.”
The Briar Jumpers enter the game with a chip on their shoulders. They have 665 wins in school history good for eighth all-time in Kentucky. But Somerset is the lone team in the top 10 on that list that has never won a state championship. The Briar Jumpers have finished state runner-up several times, most recently losing 21-0 to Paducah Tilghman in the Class 3A state championship in 2009.
Both teams run spread offenses. But NewCath quarterback Mac Franzen goes under center and Somerset sophomore quarterback Castle Hatcher lines up in the shotgun.
NewCath has thrown for 1,822 yards and run for 2,113 behind its offensive line. Franzen has completed 115-of-193 passes for 1,794 yards, 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He has also rushed for 577 yards on 131 attempts and six touchdowns.
Sophomore Jacob Smith leads NewCath rushing for 904 yards on 161 attempts and 11 touchdowns. Junior Brandon Gray leads the Thoroughbreds with 31 catches for 414 yards and three touchdowns with Tommy Donnelly hauling in 29 catches for 599 yards and seven touchdowns.
“They throw a lot of (schemes) at you so they do make you think,” said Dave Schneider, NewCath Offensive Coordinator. “They have a nice team. (Audibling) is something we’ve been doing well. We have a lot of confidence in that area so we hope it continues.”
Somerset runs 3-4 and 5-2 multiple defensive schemes. The Briar Jumpers have allowed 2,088 yards rushing and 1,334 passing. Bailey McEnroe led the team with 141 tackles prior to the win at Prestonsburg.
“They’re pretty big, but not as big as last year,” said Logan Neff, NewCath junior lineman. “It’s pretty much about getting low. You can’t take any play for granted. You have to play every play like it’s your last play. It could be the last game we play so you have to take advantage of what you have.”
Hatcher has thrown for 1,740 yards, 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions completing 108-of-237 passes. Cam Cheuvront has been his top target with 58 catches for 968 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“We’ll be familiar with (the spread offense),” said Kameron Winter, NewCath sophomore defensive lineman. “If they throw it long, we have guys that can get on (opposing routes). If they run up the middle, our defensive line can stop it. I think it will be a good game.”
Somerset has rushed for 2,094 yards and passed for 1,877. Bryson Jones leads the Briar Jumpers with 430 yards rushing on 84 carries and 15 touchdowns. But Will Lange rushed for 60 yards and had 125 yards on four catches and two touchdowns against Prestonsburg.
“They throw a lot of scissor (routes),” Wagner said. “(Cheuvront) is very fast. He is a tough receiver. (Bryson Jones) is a tough runner and (Will Lange) is a quick runner. We know we have our work cut out for us.”
NewCath senior linebacker Jack Sutkamp leads the team with 179 tackles. The school record for most tackles in a season is 206 by Steve Smith in 1995. Tyler Lyon leads the Thoroughbreds with five fumble recoveries with Nate Enslen and Gray nabbing a team-high two interceptions each. NewCath has allowed 1,697 yards rushing and 1,776 passing.
“(Sutkamp) jumped out to us as we watched film,” Lucas said. “He is an outstanding player. He is surrounded by 10 other outstanding football players that run to the ball with intensity. Like we do each week, we look for matchups we can win. We need to hopefully turn them over, match their intensity and put our kids in a position to win. (At) this time of the year, there is no team here by mistake.”
The winner takes on either Louisville DeSales (12-1) or Murray (9-4) in the state championship game at 11 a.m. Central Standard Time on Dec. 7. NewCath also won the crown in 2010.