Senior staff writer
Franklin Central and Roncalli showed their never-say-die attitudes Friday as their late-game comeback bids fell short inside Lucas Oil Stadium.
Lightning-fast Southport held a 27-7 lead late in the third quarter against rival and 4A No. 4 Roncalli before the Rebels caught fire, scoring twice and driving to the Cardinals’ 27 before Justin Herring ended the threat with an interception.
“Honestly I didn’t know what to expect coming into this game,” Southport coach Bill Peebles said. “We got conservative near the end and tried to manage the clock. It kind of saved us in the end because they threw one up there and we picked it off.”
Herring’s pick came with just seconds left on the clock and preserved a 27-21 win for the unranked but potent Cardinals.
First-time starting quarterback Robbie Strader aptly guided the Roncalli comeback. Unlike past Roncalli teams, Strader took to the air in the fourth quarter. He connected with senior end Trevor Jacob for a 14-yard touchdown with 10:49 left. Four minutes later he hit Justin Saylor with a nifty 33-yard TD pass down the left sideline to trim the lead to 27-21.
Roncalli’s defense stepped up in the second half. Jordan Frost and Chris Ford dropped Southport’s Matt Johnson for a 2-yard loss on fourth-and-one to set up the Strader-Saylor score. With 2:12 left, Roncalli stopped Southport on fourth down on the 29.
Strader masterfully connected on 5-of-6 passes for 50 yards before a deep pass to the right side of the end zone was intercepted.
“We’re heartbroken with the loss,” Roncalli coach Bruce Scifres said. “We’ll take from this game the fact that our kids scratched and clawed back until the very end. We worked really hard for this game; we just fell a little bit short.”
Scifres praised Strader for his poise. Strader completed 19-of-30 passes for 377 yards and two touchdowns. Southport senior and career passing leader Luke Johnston had a workmanlike 20 completions for 281 yards and two touchdowns.
Southport effectively mixed Andrew Mappes’ running game and Johnston’s passing game to open up a 21-7 halftime lead. Blake Evans scored on a two-yard run, and Johnston hit Evans on a 33-yard scoring pass. With six seconds left in the first half, senior end Evan Higgs made a spectacular catch of a tipped pass in the end zone for a 14-point lead.
Evans, the game’s Most Valuable Player, caught nine passes for 156 yards, Higgs five for 80 yards and basketball standout Paul Scruggs three for 37 yards. Mappes rushed for 84 yards on 18 carries. Southport racked up 395 yards of offense.
“Their receivers, not just one or two but three or four, are playmakers,” Scifres said. “I thought our defensive backs were in pretty good position all night, but they made some phenomenal catches and jumped out on us.”
Roncalli amassed 526 yards of offense. Running back Nate Fries gained 127 yards, bolstered by a 46-yard gain in the first quarter.
In Franklin Central’s 32-26 loss to 5A No. 9 Decatur Central, the Flashes had the ball in their hands for the final 106 seconds but fell short on a fourth-down incomplete pass with 11 seconds left.
The Flashes trailed 34-14 early in the fourth quarter before their offense came to life.
Senior running back Robert Ritter ripped off a 53-yard gain that set up quarterback Cody Jacob’s 1-yard scoring jaunt with 6:41 to go. First-year coach Grant Lewis called for a onside kick that was successfully recovered by Austin McIntosh at midfield.
Sparked by a 31-yard pass from Jacob to Kain Idele, the Flashes scored two plays later on a 7-yard pass from Jacob to Wilson Huber with 4:25 left.
FC’s defense held the Hawks to 29 yards in seven plays and took over on DC’s 24 with 1:44 left cut couldn’t convert on a fourth down.
“We had spurts where we looked very strong and other spurts when we made a lot of mental errors,” FC coach Lewis said. “I liked the way we kept fighting and fighting. It was our mental errors that caused us to lose this game.”