On a crisp, windy night before a hyped-up crowd of more than 7,000, Whitmer and Central Catholic played a contest that will likely be discussed among local pundits for years. The game began with both teams adopting a conservative approach. Neither offense was able to generate much momentum as the teams wrestled to establish field position.
The Irish did mount a small scoring threat midway through the second quarter but a Whitmer interception by sophomore Jacob Noon at their own six-yard line ended the drive. With time expiring in the first half, the Panthers took advantage of the good field position gained thanks to a poor Central punt and pushed across the game’s first score when senior quarterback Donnie Dottei ran the last three yards. The Dottei touchdown gave the Panthers a 7-0 that they took to the locker room at halftime.
The second half was remarkably different from the first. Both teams opened up their offenses and the fireworks began.
The Panthers struck first by converting a 25 yard field goal early in the third quarter but the field goal had to be a disappointment for the Panthers as they failed to score from first and goal from the Irish 3 yard line.
On the subsequent possession Central finally broke through for a score. Central’s senior quarterback Tyler Kleeberger orchestrated a 77-yard drive that ultimately resulted in Vyshawn Arnold scoring on a five-yard plunge that brought the Irish within three at 10-7.
It took the Irish only two and a half minutes to tie the score when Kyle Burkhardt hit a 24 yard field goal with just over nine minutes remaining in the game but the final nine minutes would be full of excitement.
Following the Irish field goal, the Panthers appeared to be stalled at midfield at third down and long but, as he has for the past two years, senior wide receiver Beau Norton came up with a big 30 yard reception to give the Panthers a much needed first down. With new life, Dottei threw a 33-yard strike to Jeremy Jones and the Panthers regained the lead with just under 4 and a half minutes remaining.
The Irish, however, were not done. Irish quarterback Tyler Kleeberger, who had sparked the Central offense all night, keyed the Central drive that culminated in a perfectly executed 21-yard touchdown pass to Dante Johnson. Kyle Burkhardt’s conversion kick tied the score setting the stage for Whitmer’s fourth overtime game of the year.
In the overtime, neither team wasted much time in scoring. Central had the first possession and scored in two plays as Kleeberger capped a night where he ran for a 140 yards and passed for an additional 145 by sneaking over from the one-yard line. Burkhardt’s kick gave the Irish their first lead of the night at 24-17.
Not to be outdone, the Panthers came back fast on their overtime possession. On the very first play, Dottei threw a perfect pass to Jeremy Jones for a twenty-yard touchdown and the crowd settled back expecting a second overtime but the old gambler, Whitmer’s head coach, Joe Palka, decided that he wanted to win the game right now and elected to go for the two point conversion. A decision that will be debated for years not only as to its wisdom but also for how it developed.
“We were going to go for it,” Palka said. “We didn't have a lot of momentum at the end and felt we needed to take the shot and thought we'd get it. We didn't, and the credit goes to Central.”
“You can't live and die in overtime forever. We just came up an inch short. That was strictly my decision. I knew right away when we scored I wanted to go for two. I don't second-guess it.”
With the failed two-point conversion, Central won the contest 24-23 and ended a classic high school football game that featured many outstanding individual performances and great team play. Cliches aside, it was a shame that anyone had to lose.
Entering the final week of the regular season, Central improves to 7-2 and Whitmer falls to an identical 7-2.