Nearly 6,000 football fans arrived at Center Grove Friday night anticipating a show.
Boy, did they get one.
In a Class 5A regional that produced a mind-numbing 992 yards of offense between the two teams, the sixth-ranked Trojans recorded a 58-34 victory against No. 3 and previously unbeaten Castle.
The victory not only qualified coach Eric Moore’s program for its fourth semistate appearance in five seasons, Center Grove (12-1) now gets a shot at No. 1 Lawrence Central. The unbeaten Bears come to the Trojans’ field next week with a trip to the 5A state title game at stake.
Senior halfback Conner Stapleton led the way for Center Grove, carrying the ball 18 times for 180 yards and three touchdowns. Fullback Lane Morris also accounted for three scores, two on runs and another through the air, to go along with 143 yards rushing.
In all, the Trojans’ wing-T offense came through with 511 yards, including 175 through the air from junior quarterback Luke Calvert.
Center Grove’s second-half performance defensively also played a major role in the final outcome. Castle junior quarterback Mitch Gilles, who completed 36 of 56 pass attempts for 423 yards, was limited to “only” 122 of that the final two periods.
This enabled Moore’s squad to put some much-needed padding between itself and the Knights after leading 37-27 at halftime. Center Grove also benefited from the absence of 5-foot-10 Castle slot receiver Jon-Marc Anderson, who sat out the second half with a shoulder injury after the senior blur produced 12 catches for 141 yards in the first half.
A total of 670 yards were generated in the first half alone, the Trojans holding a slim 342-328 advantage despite the 6-foot-2, 202-pound Gilles completing 22 of 32 pass attempts for 301 yards.
Center Grove’s numbers were far more balanced, Calvert throwing for 168 yards on 10-of-14 marksmanship compared to a ground assault that produced 174. Stapleton had 135 of those, including touchdown runs of 3 and 72 yards.
The Trojans trailed 27-22 late in the second period but took control over the final 1:50 with 15 consecutive points. Tight end Nate Wozniak hauled in his second 11-yard touchdown reception of the game before Center Grove finally managed to force a three-and-out by the Knights.
A good punt return by senior Josh Piper put the Trojans in business at the Castle 46 with 1:27 showing. Eight plays later Center Grove padded its lead, Calvert delivering a six-yard pass to fullback Lane Morris in the back of the end zone.
Center Grove closed the game the same way it closed out the opening half, with two consecutive TDs. Stapleton made it a 51-34 ballgame early in the fourth when he busted loose from 47 yards out. Fittingly, Morris followed up with a 1-yard blast with 5:00 remaining in the game.