By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
This looks to be their biggest challenge of the Class 2A football playoffs.
But the fourth-ranked Newport Central Catholic Thoroughbreds (9-4) do not mind. They travel near Lake Cumberland with history on their side.
NewCath began its current run of 13 consecutive trips to the regional title game in 2000 and when the Thoroughbreds advanced past that round, they’ve ended up playing two extra games. NewCath (9-4) sports a perfect 7-0 record in state semifinal contests during that time.
That includes wins in 2005 and 2006 against Friday’s opponent in the host and second-ranked Somerset Briar Jumpers (11-2) back when there were four classes. Game time is 7:30 p.m. at Clark Field.
NewCath beat Somerset, 35-10 in Newport in 2005 and 40-24 in Somerset the next year in the Class A semifinals. The Thoroughbreds went on to beat Mayfield, 42-7 for the 2005 state championship and Danville, 37-34 for the 2006 title.
This marks the fifth meeting in school history against Somerset. The two teams have never met in the regular season.
“We just have to play our game,” said Eddie Eviston, NewCath head coach. “In the state semifinals, we’d better be motivated and they’d better be motivated or there’s no reason to be there. At this point in the season, everybody is good. It’s a matter of who prepares well and understands what they’re trying to do. It’s all about reacting to what you see. You can’t be thinking too much out there. We hope to prepare these guys well enough that we’re just playing football.”
The Thoroughbreds also went on to win the state championship two years ago in Eviston’s first year as head coach for their fourth overall. They finished state runner-up in 2000, 2001, 2007 and 2008.
Whenever the Thoroughbreds have beaten the Briar Jumpers in the playoffs, they’ve won state championships. NewCath also beat Somerset, 17-0 in the 1984 Class AA state semifinals before beating Fort Knox, 12-7 for its first state championship.
Somerset’s only win in the series came 8-7 in 1983. John Cain’s Briar Jumpers ended up falling 19-14 to Fort Knox in the 2A state championship a week later.
NewCath faces a hungry Somerset team aiming to break an 0-3 mark against northern Kentucky teams in state semifinal contests since 2005. The Briar Jumpers lost 48-14 to eventual state champion Covington Holy Cross in the state semifinals last year.
“This is going to sound conceited, and please don’t take it that way,” said Robbie Lucas, Somerset head coach. “But we have been here before. I would like to go ahead and push through northern Kentucky and that’s going to be tough.”
Somerset ranks eighth in Kentucky in terms of overall wins with 657 since starting its program in 1907. The Briar Jumpers are the lone team in the top 10 without a state championship. They own four state runner-up finishes including a 21-0 loss to Paducah Tilghman in the Class 3A state title game in 2009.
Both teams own seven-game winning streaks coming into the contest. The Thoroughbreds have beaten their playoff opponents by an average of about 41.3 points and the Briar Jumpers have beaten their three opponents by an average of 30.
Somerset had the tougher road to the playoffs having to beat District 7 rivals Danville (31-7) and Lexington Christian (42-19) for the second time on its way to the Region 4 crown. NewCath had to beat just one district opponent again in Covington Holy Cross (52-0) on its way to the Region 3 title.
But the Thoroughbreds played arguably the tougher regular-season schedule. They finished 1-2 against Class 6A teams, including a 28-20 defeat to regional finalist Simon Kenton and also lost to 4A Covington Holmes (12-7) and Ohio Division III Cincinnati McNicholas (27-24) in the final minutes.
Somerset played three teams from Class 5A beating 3-7 Southwestern (48-2), 4-7 Perry County Central and losing to 7-5 Whitley County (14-7). The Briar Jumpers also lost to 12-1 3A power Breathitt County (24-13) and beat 9-3 defending A champion Hazard (17-9).
“We’ve always had the (tough) schedule we play,” Eviston said. “You’re talking to someone who is maybe biased. But Northern Kentucky football is one of the best in the state. Let’s hope that rings true on Friday.”
Both teams run spread offenses. But NewCath lines up its quarterback more under center while Somerset tends to line up in the shotgun.
The Thoroughbreds have scored 507 points and allowed 204 outscoring the opposition by an average of about 39-15.7. They’ve run for 2,259 yards and passed for 2006 for a combined 4,265 yards averaging about 328 yards a contest.
Senior Dylan Hayes leads the Thoroughbreds rushing the ball 177 times for 1,476 yards and 24 touchdowns for an average of about 8.3 a carry. Quarterback Josh Cain has completed 138-of-229 passes for 2,005 yards and 17 touchdowns to go with six interceptions.
“This is an extremely disciplined football team that executes very well,” Lucas said. “They do not hurt themselves with penalties or turn the ball over. For that reason, they are the type of team you expect to see in the Final Four.”
NewCath distributes the ball around. Junior Mac Franzen leads the Thoroughbreds with 47 catches for 935 yards and six touchdowns. But Pete Collopy, Dan Ruwe, Noah Freppon and Hayes have at least nine receptions each.
“We’re pretty confident offensively,” Collopy said. “We know we can balance the ball between the run and the pass. We’re pretty sophisticated in the pass. We don’t know if they’ve seen that. We hope it pays off for us.”
The Briar Jumpers will counter with a 5-2 defense. They’ve allowed just 141 points all year averaging about 10.8 a game. Somerset gave up just 1,904 yards in 12 games for an average of about 159 a contest. Senior defensive lineman Tevin Slaughter had 127 tackles through 12 games to lead the way.
Somerset has played two quarterbacks this year in junior Tanner Gadberry and freshman Castle Hatcher. Hatcher has completed 31-of-60 passes for 631 yards, eight touchdowns and five interceptions. Gadberry has completed 52-of-110 passes for 835 yards, five touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Their leading target has been junior Cam Cheuvront with 46 catches for 733 yards and eight touchdowns. Senior Will Lange leads the Briar Jumpers with 840 yards on 150 carries and 10 touchdowns for an average of 5.6 a carry.
“(Castle Hatcher) is very similar to the junior quarterback (Tanner Gadberry),” Eviston said. “They have a little stable of athletes that do things. They’re pretty balanced. We have to recognize formations, line up correctly and play good football.”
The Thoroughbreds will bring their 4-4 defense south. They’ve allowed 1,863 yards rushing and 1,618 passing for a total of 3,481 equating to an average of about 267.8 yards a contest. Junior defensive lineman Ross Meek leads NewCath with 93 tackles and Franzen has a team-high three interceptions. Collopy, Tyler Lyon and Mason Myers all have two fumble recoveries a piece.
“They definitely have size and a lot of talent,” Meek said. “We need to take away that middle run (Dive). This is definitely a game of power against speed.”
The winner of this game plays either Caldwell County or Louisville DeSales at Noon on Dec. 1 for the state championship. NewCath is 2-1 against DeSales, but has never faced Caldwell County.