RB Todd Ruggley (6-1, 185, Sr.), RB Chris O’Brien (5-11, 200, Sr.), C Kasey Tierney (6-5, 255, Sr.), DE Jacob Hyland (6-3, 215, Sr.), LB/RB Michael Corwin (5-11, 210, Sr.), OT Drew Snider (6-2, 290, Sr.), OLB Jacob Rigali (6-1, 180, So.), DB/WR/QB Daniel Lombardo (5-9, 155, Sr.), LB Michael Lombardo (5-10, 210, Jr.), FS/RB Matt Huffman (5-10, 165, Sr.)
Things keep getting better and better for Lima Central Catholic. The Thunderbirds have turned around a losing pattern in a hurry, making a surprise run to the regional finals in 2005 and making a return appearance in 2006.
The winning attitude has sunk in, and the success of the past two seasons could be just one sign of things to come.
“I think the first year (I was here) in 2005, we had been 15-35 in the five years before I got here,” head coach Jerry Cooper said. “But we won 11 games my first year. Then the next year, we kind of fed off of that success and we came back and thought we were going to be down a little bit but they got back to that same level, to the regional championship, and we were able to win their league outright. So with the success of the past two seasons, the confidence is real high in our program, and I think we’re developing better speed and getting more physical and stronger. So I think our program is progressing. Now it still remains to be seen whether we can play at a higher level.”
Some observers did not expect Central Catholic to have as equally successful of a season in 2006 as they had in 2005, but the Thunderbirds shook off the youth factor and turned in another stellar performance.
“I’m real, real proud of the accomplishments of that team,” Cooper said. “We had graduated 20 seniors from the year before. We only had seven seniors on the football team last year. So we did not know where we were at in the preseason, but that team really performed real well for us. We won 11 games and made it to the regional finals and lost to the eventual state champion St. Henry. We won our league – the Northwest Conference – we won the league outright. So I’m really proud of the accomplishments of that team. I think we’re making some real progress with our program.”
The success is expected to carry over into 2007. Lima Central Catholic has seven starters back on each side of the ball and only graduated seven players from last year’s regional finalist. Those seven seniors, which included Division V defensive player of the year Drew Kirkman, All-Ohio lineman Jared Stolley, and starting quarterback Jeff Bowers, will be missed, but the numbers overall are looking very good.
“We had 65 kids on the team last year and only seven seniors, so we’re expecting real nice numbers in the program,” Cooper said. “With the success of the past two years, our numbers are up and our enthusiasm is real high, so we’re expecting real nice things of our football program.”
With a huge, experienced offensive line and two 1,000-yard rushers returning in the backfield, Central Catholic will likely be very tough to stop on the ground. The offense produced 3,000 yards running the football in 2007 along with 1,100 yards in the air.
“We have five of our six interior offensive linemen back,” Cooper said. “That’s a real strong point for us. We have great size. We have two 300-pound tackles. Our center’s 6-5, 255, so for a small school we’re going to be nice and big in the offensive line. I think that will be a real area of strength as we have some real experience up front.
“We also have Chris O’Brien, who scored 20 touchdowns for us last year and was our leading rusher with over 1,200 yards – he’s back. We have had an addition of a real good athlete named Todd Ruggley, who transferred in from Lima Bath. He rushed for over 1,000 yards at Bath. So we have some real depth and experience on the offensive line and in the offensive backfield. So I feel like we’re going to be a pretty good offensive football team.”
The defense is expected to be solid as well, bringing back seven starters from a unit that held six opponents under seven points, including shutout wins in their first two playoff games against West Liberty-Salem and Lafayette Allen East.
“Our kids played exceptionally well defensively,” Cooper said. “We didn’t really give up a lot of points; in fact, in ten regular season games we only gave up about 130 points – 13 points a game. So we were pretty pleased with the progress that we made defensively and some of the things we did moving the football and putting up points.”
Assuming the Thunderbirds get to the postseason, they will be battle-tested after having fought through a challenging schedule.
“We open with Delphos St. John’s, a perennial state football power for a small school,” Cooper said. “We play Columbus Bishop Ready in our other non-conference game, and they’ve been real successful at a Division V level. Then our conference has some really good programs in it – Bluffton’s been in the playoffs consistently, and Columbus Grove has had some really good playoff football teams as has Delphos Jefferson. Then last year, Allen East and Spencerville both made the playoffs from our league. So it’s a pretty rich tradition in our league, and obviously for Division V we feel like we’re playing a pretty good schedule.”
In addition to the new success, the Thunderbirds enjoy the excitement of playing in a nice-sized stadium with a new field.
“We play in Lima Stadium, and they just put field turf in that stadium last year,” Cooper said. “We play in a 5,000 seat stadium and have a great following. It’s really been neat watching our program improve and grow, and we’re just hoping we can take it to the next level.
“I don’t think there’s any question it’s helped us. We get ideal playing conditions when we’re playing at home. It’s a great thing; people love to come to Lima Stadium and play.”
It’s always extremely difficult to have to project state champions before the season begins as it’s not only tough to make an accurate pick but also brings with it the unenviable feeling of placing extra pressure on a high school team. But with so many positive vibes and such a large number of players returning, Lima Central Catholic appears to be on the short list of teams that will be among the favorites to make a run at all the Division V marbles this season.
“Things are lined up; now we just have to go out and get better and perform,” Cooper said. “There are lot of things in line; now we just have to go out and perform and play good football.”
8/25/2007 vs. DELPHOS ST JOHN'S
8/31/2007 @ CONVOY CRESTVIEW
9/7/2007 vs. PAULDING
9/15/2007 vs. COLUMBUS GROVE
9/21/2007 @ DELPHOS JEFFERSON
9/29/2007 vs. SPENCERVILLE
10/5/2007 vs. COLUMBUS BISHOP READY
10/12/2007 @ BLUFFTON
10/19/2007 @ LAFAYETTE ALLEN EAST
10/27/2007 vs. ADA