It wasn’t just any game for the Colerain Cardinals when they took on the defending Division I defending state champion St. Xavier Bombers in the regional finals at Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium on Nov. 17.
The loss in the regional finals to St. Xavier last season obviously stuck in the craw of Colerain head coach Kerry Coombs.
“It’s been a year and a week, 372 days if anybody is counting,” said Coombs after his team’s 24-7 victory over the Bombers. “But dag gone it, we got back here and had a chance at them tonight and our kids played really, really well.”
It was a team effort that did in the Bombers but Coombs wasn’t hesitant at all when he was asked about the way Eugene Clifford performed in the win after being named to the U.S. Army All-American team earlier that afternoon.
“I think Eugene handled all that attention today with such great class and he just turned it around and had an unbelievable game tonight. He was running all over the field making tackles,” Coombs said. “Eugene is just one of the many but he’s a big reason why we are where we are. He just had a great game tonight.”
Clifford now joins Ben Martin of Cincinnati La Salle High School as the only two representatives of the Buckeye state to be selected to play in the prestigious national all-star game.
“It was a real honor to get that selection. I’m very proud of myself for getting that,” said Clifford who mentioned that his selection was officially announced at a pep rally at the school that day. “I thank my teammates for that because if it wasn’t for them I probably wouldn’t even be in that game. It’s very exciting to be able to play against some of the top prospects in the country.”
The convincing victory over St. Xavier just made the day extra special for Clifford. After going 15-0 and winning the state championship two years ago, the Cardinals finished 11-2 last season, losing both times to the Bombers.
“It feels really good to win this game. I know last year they got us twice and this year we came back and were ready to go,” Clifford said. “It means a lot to be able to get back to where we were my sophomore year. It’s great to have another chance to win a state championship this year. ”
But St. Xavier was the team they needed to beat before they could even allow themselves to think about eventually getting back to the state title game.
“We’ve got two more (games to play). But for us, you can’t play in those two if you don’t get this one,” Coombs said. “So this has been our sole focal point for a full year and we had a chance to come back out here and play well tonight.”
And now that they’ve beaten the Bombers and earned the right to play Hilliard Davidson in the state semifinals, Coombs won’t even allow his team to entertain the thought about playing for the state championship yet. The Wildcats lost to St. Xavier in the state semifinals last season and are unbeaten in 13 games this year.
“Can’t even think about (the state championship),” Coombs said. “We had a let down two weeks ago when we were up 28-0 and that’s what we’ll keep reminding our kids. We had a little bit of a let down at the beginning of the second half tonight, we dropped the ball twice inside the five. We didn’t play a perfect game tonight but we played a physical, tough game and I’m so proud of our kids for that.
“So we’ve got a chance next week, we’ll be hanging around.”
And if they should beat Davidson at Dayton’s Welcome Stadium, then the Cardinals will have an opportunity to go unbeaten again and win their second state title in three years (they beat Canton McKinley, 50-10, in finals in 2004) if they can get a victory in Canton the following week.