CENTERBURG – Stephen Schmitt was in pain.
The senior linebacker came up lame after a play near the beginning of the fourth quarter and could barely walk. He limped along the sideline, receiving attention from the Centerburg training staff, and he grimaced with each step.
But at this point in the game, with everything on the line, there was no time for pain.
With 7:40 left in the fourth quarter, Fredericktown – which had mustered just two first downs all night – had suddenly sprung to life. The Freddies started their drive on the Centerburg 46-yard line after an errant Trojan punt, and on first down, quarterback Jack Fitzpatrick broke free for a 38-yard carry up the middle.
Centerburg had held an 8-0 lead the entire second half, but now that lead was in jeopardy.
Schmitt couldn’t let this happen. Not against Fredericktown. Not on Senior Night.
As the rain began to pick up – what had began as a drizzle had now turned into a pour – the Centerburg defense locked in for a first-and-goal situation. Anchored by Schmitt and a physical defensive line, the Trojans held the Freddies to just one yard on next three plays combined.
On fourth-and-goal from the seven, Fitzpatrick took the snap in the backfield. But before he could think about where to go, he was met by none other than Schmitt – adrenaline doing all the work for his injury-plagued leg – and the senior wrestled him down with ease. The Trojan sideline went crazy. Schmitt celebrated as he limped off the field, a mix of agony and jubilance only possible through sport.
But the Freddies weren’t done yet.
The visitors had one final opportunity to close the gap on their next offensive possession, which they began at the Centerburg six-yard line after a blocked punt. On this night, however, Schmitt and the Trojan defense simply wouldn’t budge.
With 2:34 left, the Freddies had a fourth-and-goal from the 9-yard line. Fitzpatrick dropped back, reared up, and launched a pass towards a receiver streaking towards the middle of the end zone.
But before the ball could reach its target, it was batted down by the man of the hour. For a second consecutive time, with the game on the line, Schmitt made the play. While he limped once again off the field, his teammates jumped with joy.
One last win for the team’s seven seniors. One last time under the lights. Schmitt wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“This was my last opportunity and I have all these guys that I play for, and I just really didn’t want to let them down, you know?” Schmitt said afterwards, his face caked in sweat and mud. “There’s nothing else that I wanted to regret, so I just went out there and gave it my all.”
In the season finale, Centerburg (5-5, 3-4 KMAC) defeated cross-county rival Fredericktown (1-9, 1-6 KMAC) on Friday night by a score of 8-0. It was as ugly as the score might indicate, as the constant rain made any sort of ball movement nearly impossible.
By the end of the game, the space in between the hash marks was nothing but mud, from end zone to end zone. The players became so muddy during the second half that Centerburg announcing crew could barely make out numbers on the jerseys.
After two punts by each team to begin the game, Centerburg scored first under rather unconventional circumstances. The Freddies fumbled three shotgun snaps in one possession, and on the third, the ball squirted through Fitzpatrick’s hands and slid into the end zone. When he was able to corral the pigskin, Fitzpatrick slung it towards the middle of the field in order to avoid a safety.
Ironically, Fitzpatrick’s heave would end up causing the result he had desperately tried to avoid.
After a substantial amount of deliberation, the referees flagged Fredericktown for intentional grounding, saying no receivers were within the vicinity of the ball. Because Fitzpatrick threw the ball from the end zone, it meant that Centerburg was awarded a safety.
The Trojans rejoiced as Freddie fans booed. After the game, Fredericktown head coach Beau Wolford declined to comment directly on whether or not he received an explanation for the call.
“I didn’t get a whole lot of explanations for a lot of things, so we’ll just leave it at that,” Wolford said.
Centerburg drove deep into Fredericktown territory multiple times in the second quarter before capitalizing late. With 2:48 left until halftime, quarterback John Sheasby led a 54-yard march that ended with a four-yard touchdown scamper by sophomore Trey Kendrick. After a failed two-point conversion attempt, the Trojans went into the locker room up 8-0.
End-of-half momentum swings often decided Centerburg’s wins and losses this year, and the score with 37 seconds left on Friday night proved to be crucial down the stretch.
“Typically, that’s how the season’s gone. When we do that, we end up on the right side of it. When we haven’t we end up on the wrong side,” Centerburg head coach Andy Colella said. “But I thought our kids did a great job, they played with tons of energy tonight.”
Given how Centerburg’s defense played on Friday, one touchdown was all the Trojans needed. Centerburg held Fredericktown to just 18 net yards of offense, all of which came on the ground. Fredericktown had more penalties (5) than first downs (3) and Fitzpatrick went 0-for-10 through the air.
The Trojans consistently met Freddie ball carriers in the backfield, embracing a physical style that Colella had preached all week at practice.
“That was one of our major focuses this week, was just really letting the energy loose,” Schmitt said. “(Against) Northmor, we didn’t do too good in the first quarter. But once we came out in the second half, we came out with high energy. And we really emphasized this the entire game, and we got the shutout.”
The Freddies were also without their starting quarterback and go-to playmaker on Friday night, Terry Fearn. The junior had recently injured his collarbone, according to Wolford, and the team agreed it would be best if he sat out in order to recover for the upcoming basketball season.
Even after sitting out the final game, Fearn finished the season as Fredericktown’s leading passer and rusher. For a team that was already struggling to string scores together – Fredericktown scored just 20 total points over the last four weeks of the season – Fearn’s absence was certainly felt.
And in a game with little room for error, Wolford felt his team’s inexperience proved costly.
“That’s kind of been the plague for us all year. Having any kind of error is just going to put you at a disadvantage – and especially with a group of young guys who are learning a new system, a new set offensively and defensively, you just can’t have big errors like that,” Wolford said. “You’re going to set yourself behind. And unfortunately, we just didn’t come up on top.”
Centerburg was led offensively by Sheasby, who used his legs more than his arm given the blustery conditions. While he completed just one pass, he ran for 151 of the team’s 180 total yards.
Despite the Trojans’ limited offensive production on Friday night, Colella was proud of his team’s resiliency.
“You know, we just got that score on defense and then we were able to put one in (during) the first half. And we felt defensively, if we could keep playing defense the way we were, that would have been good enough,” Colella said. “And fortunately, it was.”
Colella was also proud of the team’s seven seniors, who walked off the field for the final time victorious.
“Awesome. Unbelievable for those kids,” Colella said. “They’ve sacrificed a lot for this program, for this football team, and for myself personally and this coaching staff. They’re all unbelievable kids and they did a great job.
“They’ve done everything that we’ve ever asked them to do and I’m so happy for them, that they were able to go out like this. This is their last game, this is the one they’ll remember the most.”
For the Trojans, Friday’s victory meant a three-win improvement from last year’s total. Colella said afterwards that the team will look to make yet another leap next season, although it will have do so without graduating playmakers such as Schmitt, Joel Rings, Michael Kuhn and Gabe Dickerson.
“We’re losing those seven kids, those great seven kids, but on both sides of the ball we’ve got eight kids coming back. So there’s a lot to build from that,” Colella said. “Obviously, there’s a lot to still work on. And you know, we’ll regroup and take some time off and enjoy this one as long as we can. But there’s always room for improvement and those kind of things moving forward.”
Meanwhile, Fredericktown will go back to the drawing board in hopes of more success next season. The Freddies won just one game this fall, a 31-point victory over winless Mount Gilead. They ended the season on a five-game losing skid.
Fredericktown will look to improve next year despite graduating seven key contributors, including Fitzpatrick and standouts such as Jake Partington and John Robbins.
“I talked individually to our seniors about how proud we are of the leadership that they portrayed,” Wolford said. “To our younger guys, we have nine months to get things ready and make sure we’re back, ready by the start of the season next year. We’ve got a lot of young guys itching for a spot.”
Centerburg’s win on Friday continued what has become a remarkably even rivalry in recent years. Over the last five years, Centerburg and Fredericktown have alternated victors each meeting. Six of the last seven games have been decided by a touchdown or less, and Friday’s result was no different.
As Centerburg’s seniors linked arms and walked across the field together one last time on Friday, tears were shed. Four years of dedication had culminated in one night, a last-minute victory over their arch-rival.
It was muddy. It was ugly. But at the same time, it was perfect.
“You know, it was fun. It was a blast, and I’m so happy for those kids and the seniors,” Colella said. “It’s one they’ll never forget, that’s for sure.”
AROUND THE KMAC
- East Knox (8-2) beat Danville (4-6), 28-21
- Highland (9-1) beat Northmor (9-1), 38-20
- Cardington-Lincoln (2-8) beat Mount Gilead (0-10), 30-16
FINAL KMAC STANDINGS
- Highland (7-0, 9-1)
- Northmor (6-1, 9-1)
- East Knox (5-2, 8-2)
- Danville (4-3, 4-6)
- Centerburg (3-4, 5-5)
- Cardington-Lincoln (2-5, 2-8)
- Fredericktown (1-6, 1-9)
- Mount Gilead (0-7, 0-10)