Wildcats' season comes to an end

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Henry County can't reach end zone in 48-0 loss to the defending state champions and No. 1 ranked team in Class 3-A in the first round of the playoffs

By Tommie Kendall

In a turn of events that saw the Henry County Wildcats start the football season on fire before slowly taking a nose dive, their season came to a crashing end Friday night against Central in the opening round of the Class 3-A State Playoffs.

Central was in front 35-0 at the half and cruised in for a 48-0 victory, which was the finale for the Wildcats, who were hoping to improve on last season’s 9-4 record and a trip to the quarterfinals of the playoffs. Instead, Henry had to settle with a 6-5 record and a first-round loss to the defending state champions who are currently ranked No. 1 in 3-A. It was a roller-coaster season full up ups and downs, bumps and bruised for the Cats.

“It definitely wasn’t the season we were hoping for. Our expectations were much higher,” said Chris Engstrand, whose team was ranked No. 1 in Class 3-A in the Litkenhous Rankings earlier in the season before finishing at a still-impressive No. 9. “At the same time, with two consecutive winning seasons I think this program is headed in the right direction. Now, we just have to find a way to propel this team to the next level.”

Henry would have undoubtedly had more success this fall if not for all the setbacks caused by injuries, especially late in the season when the Wildcats were struggling with key players sidelined. In the final game, Erick Butler, Zach Rahm, Pete Baldwin and Matt Butts all missed the game due to injuries, while a number of other players had their minutes limited. Justin Hartlage, who didn’t play the week before due to a foot injury, only played a short time Friday before leaving the game, and Patrick Mahoney’s minutes were also limited because of another injury. Steven May, Matt Long, Brett Downey, Dylan Doll, Kevin Quire, Darien Ingram, Cody Hinkel and Jimmy Sampson were also playing through setbacks, which left Henry far from full strength.

With the injuries, the most noticeable difference came on the defensive side of the ball for a defense that was one of the top in the entire state through half of the season. Butler, who was named to All-State Honorable Mention last fall as a sophomore middle linebacker, ended his junior campaign with a fractured vertebra midway through the season. Then, linebacker May had to miss a few games with some stingers in his shoulders and nose guard Rahm had to miss the last few weeks with back problems. Add into the equation the other players, including linemen Butts who had his second ACL tear, and it was a situation hard to overcome.

Henry started the season winning its first four games in dominating fashion, outscoring Ludlow, Trimble County, Owen County and Pendleton County 203-0 in four straight shutouts. The Wildcats then lost to North Oldham, defeated Eminence, lost to Western Hills, defeated Carroll County, and ended the regular season on a two-game skid with losses to Spencer County and Scott. The losses to North Oldham, Western Hills and Spencer were all District Four games, which left Henry at 0-3 in the district and as the No. 4 seed in the state playoffs.

Meanwhile, Central was 6-3 during the regular season with quality losses to St. Xavier (ranked No. 1 in the entire state), Highlands (No. 3) and DuPont Manual (No. 14). The Yellowjackets earned the No. 1 seed from District Three, which pitted them against Henry in the new cross-ditrict playoff setup. It was not a good matchup for the struggling but determined Wildcats.

“Central is definitely the team I thought they would be,” Engstrand said after his squad took the 48-0 loss. “I can spell it with four letters: F A S T. They sure were fast.”

The Yellowjackets scored just one touchdown during the first quarter before opening up the game with a dominating second-quarter performance. They scored on the opening play and scored again with 7:59 on the clock, 6:31 and 4:47 to grab a 35-0 lead at the half. They then added two more touchdowns during the third quarter on a pair of runs at 9:03 and 6:07. Neither team could score in the final 17:53.

Meanwhile, Henry had a hard time moving the ball all night. The Wildcats took the opening kickoff from inside their own 20-yard line to the 35 on the other side of the field, but wasn’t able to advance it any farther. The closest they got to the end zone the entire game was to the 30. But it wasn’t an effort issue for the Cats this time out, Engstrand said.

“I felt like our kids played a whole lot harder than they did the week before,” Engstrand said of his team’s 69-12 loss to Scott in the final game of the regular season. “If we applied that same effort in the final few games of the season we probably would have been in a different position, but we knew we would see those guys (Central) eventually.”

Central controlled all the key stats, including first downs (21-10), total offensive yards (401-95), rushing yards (270-42) and passing yards (131-53).

For Henry, senior running back Cody Miracle took 12 handoffs for a team-high 21 yards, while sophomore quarterback Luke Magness was 10-of-22 passing for 53 yards and two interceptions. At the receiving end, Hayden Yancey caught two passes for 14 yards, Hinkel caught two passes for 8 yards, Miracle caught two passes for 1 yard, Sampson caught one pass for 14 yards, TJ Kelley caught one pass for 1 yard and Long caught one pass for 4 yards.

The Wildcats did control time of possession (24:17-23:43), ran one more play (47-46) and had fewer penalties (three for 35 yards for Henry compared to 10 for 85 yards for Central), but could not generate much offense or put a stop to Central’s mixture of run and pass plays.

The Wildcats will lose 16 seniors from this year’s team, including Butts, Bobby Crenshaw, Downey, Michael Ellis, Hinkel, Kelley, Jon King, Long, Mahoney, May, Miracle, Quire, Sampson, Steven Tillett, Avery Wardrup and Yancey. But they will return a number of key players, and with the younger guys having to step into more key roles with the injuries, they all have more experience. Magness will be back behind center as a junior next fall, will-be juniors Hartlage, Ingram and Doll will provide a spark, along with seniors Butler, Rahm, Baldwin, Lance Timberlake and Trevor Raisor.

“I’m very proud of this year’s team,” said Engstrand, who wants to thank his players, coaches and the community for their support. “It would have been really easy for us to fold up our tents but we never did. We continued to persevere.

“As always, we will have some tough shoes to fill with those seniors we are losing,” he added. “But it’s amazing the way kids always step up. I feel like we have just as much talent coming back. The great thing is we have seven and a half months to get ready. We will grow, develop and understand what it takes to have a successful team. The expectations might not be as high from people in the community, but they are as high from me. I feel very good about next year’s team.”

E-mail us about this story at sports@hclocal.com.