Central pulled out all the stops to win Friday's District 6 Class AA championship game, 27-22, against previously unbeaten Richland at Mansion Park.
Even one that no one - even the Scarlet Dragons' coaching staff - saw coming.
On its first possession, Central lined up for a punt at its own 18-yard line, but punter Bradi Moore ran for 4 yards on fourth-and-3 to start a 6-minute drive that stopped the Rams from piling up early points.
Mirror photos by Patrick Waksmunski
Central’s Austin Cunningham (2) celebrates with Mike Mock after Mock’s interception ended Richland’s final drive.
"It sent a message to all of us, because no one knew it was a fake punt except Bradi," Central defensive back Mike Mock said. "None of us knew. I was looking for the ball on the punt. I had no idea what was going on, but it certainly fired us up."
Central (11-2), which entered the playoffs as the No. 3 seed, continued to play keep away from the powerful Richland offense throughout the night. The Dragons piled up 23 first downs and 404 total yards of offense, while scoring just enough points and forcing three turnovers.
"We knew how good they were, but they have playmakers who made big plays when they needed to," Richland coach Brandon Bailey said. "We talked early in the week about how turnovers can decide a football game, and that's what happened tonight. You have to give them credit."
Each of Richland's turnovers proved extremely costly.
The first came with the top-seeded Rams (12-1) driving and holding an 8-6 advantage late in the first half. Richland quarterback Matt Shaffer threw a lob pass to the middle of the field, and Central's Austin Cunningham came away with an interception. Rather than run out the clock with 1:30 to play before halftime, the Dragons opted to go for a score from their own 35-yard line.
Cunningham completed two big passes to Adam Frederick of 24 and 17 yards to get Central to the Richland 7-yard line with 4 seconds to play in the half. Zach Slagenweit kicked a 24-yard field goal to give the Dragons a 9-8 lead that sent Central's players into a frenzy on the field before the Dragons sprinted into the locker room.
The Dragons maintained their momentum and took advantage of a 3-yard Richland punt on the Rams' first possession of the second half. Austin Conrath bulldozed his way through several Richland defenders from 5 yards out to make the score, 15-8.
Shaffer connected with Kyle Flick on a 70-yard pass to begin the fourth quarter, and after a 16-yard run by Tanner Solarcyzk, Shaffer scored from a yard out to tie the game.
"Our kids gave a great effort to get back into the game," Bailey said. "Our best, though, wasn't good enough tonight, because we couldn't keep any momentum we gained."
Central followed the Richland score with its most impressive drive of the night, a 10-play, 62-yard march that ended in another spectacular play by Cunningham. The senior QB dropped back to pass on third-and-7 from the Richland 23 and found sophomore wide receiver Justin Helsel for a 23-yard score. Cunningham finished the game with 154 yards rushing, 139 yards passing and accounted for three scores. For Helsel, it was just his 11th catch of the season, but no doubt the biggest.
"I thought Cunningham was great," Central coach Dave Baker said. "I thought our whole team was outstanding, but Cunningham was great. He got first downs, touchdowns and just made all the right decisions.
"The tide could have been turning there, and then we went right down the field."
Trailing by just six after Central missed the extra point, Richland was still very much in the game, but the outlook changed just 4 seconds later.
The Rams muffed the kickoff, and Mock was there to recover the ball and set up Central at the Richland 31 yard-line.
"I just busted my butt down there on that kick," Mock said. "Good things happen when you do that, I guess."
Cunningham ran for his second 20-yard touchdown of the game moments later to give Central a 27-15 lead.
Richland scored its last touchdown of the season with 1:57 to play, and though its onside kick was unsuccessful, the Rams used their three timeouts to get the ball back one last time with 1:22 left.
The Rams got to the Central 46 yard-line with less than 50 seconds to play, but turnover No. 3 ended any comeback hopes. Shaffer tried a desperation pass down the middle, and Mock made a diving interception to seal Central's first district championship since 2008.
"A thousand things were running through my mind when I came down with that ball, but the main thing was excitement," Mock said. "This is something we'll remember for the rest of our lives. People will always talk about this."
But what if Moore's unannounced fake punt hadn't worked out the whole way back in the first quarter?
"Bradi ran it, and he made it," Baker said before pausing. "If he doesn't make that ... it's probably not a very good deal for us. Thankfully he did, and we can celebrate."
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Central0 9 6 12 - 27
Richland8 0 0 14 - 22
R-Shaffer 7 run (Pecora run), 2:46.
C-Cunningham 20 run (pass failed), 5:13.
C-Slagenweit 24 FG, 0:00.
C-A. Conrath 5 run (run failed), 7:06.
R-Shaffer 1 run (Gindelsberger kick), 11:23.
C-Helsel 23 pass from Cunningham (kick failed), 7:08.
C-Cunningham 20 run (pass failed), 4:23.
R-Solarczyk 1 run (Gindlesberger kick), 1:57.
RUSHING: Central-Cunningham 27-154, Moore 16-78, A. Conrath 6-23, Emerick 4-8, M. Mock 1-4, TEAM 2-(-4). Richland-Solarczyk 11-82, Shaffer 10-37, Farina 3-11.
PASSING: Central-Cunningham 10-16-0-139. Richland-Shaffer 8-20-2-142.
RECEIVING: Central-Moore 3-15, Helsel 2-51, Frederick 2-41, Emerick 2-28, A. Conrath 1-4. Richland-Flick 4-112, Pecora 2-16, Naglic 2-14.
INTERCEPTIONS: Central-Cunningham, M. Mock. Richland-none.