Lexington Catholic was without its leading tackler, Josh Mesmer, going into Friday night's Class 4A region final against Mercer County.
Mesmer, a senior middle linebacker, was sidelined with a broken bone in his foot, and Knights Coach Bill Letton was concerned about how his defense would react.
Letton only had to worry for a half. The Knights played some of their best football of the season in the second half and they pulled away to a 49-14 victory and their third region title in a row.
Lexington Catholic (10-3) will host six-time defending state champion Highlands (12-1) next week. Highlands has beaten the Knights in the semifinals the last two years.
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After Lexington Catholic beat Mercer County, Mesmer stepped forward — on crutches — to accept the trophy, and Letton praised his defense.
"Without Josh, I think they were kind of wondering how they were going to be, but once they found their identity, they played with a lot of confidence," Letton said.
Noah Mitchell was the guy who took over at middle linebacker for Mesmer. Mitchell, a hard-nosed senior, usually plays running back. He hadn't played linebacker since the first game of the season.
But Mitchell stepped in and helped Lexington Catholic lock down Mercer County in the second half.
"Josh is the best linebacker in the state by far, and I had to try to fill those shoes," Mitchell said. "My teammates and coaches trusted me."
Letton was impressed.
"Noah's a great offensive player, and he sacrificed that part of his game tonight for the betterment of the team. I'm super proud of him."
Marty Brown, Braxton Couch and Cody Mitchell also led the Knights' defensive swarm that limited Mercer County to 53 yards in the second half. Titans' double-threat quarterback Chris Crawley-Goodman finished with 73 rushing yards and 68 passing yards.
Sophomore Zach Middleton had a play to remember for Lexington Catholic — a 25-yard interception return for a TD.
Lexington Catholic's offense, led by speedy senior Marcelis Logan, had plenty of firepower to turn the game into a runaway.
Logan rushed 10 times for 116 yards and three touchdowns, including a 58-yard sprint. He also had a 94-yard kickoff return for a score.
"Marcelis was just hitting it," Letton said. "He didn't get cute with the ball, he was just taking it and going. He had a great, great game."
Logan said he felt that "with Josh out, I had to step it up for my team."
He cramped up after his long kickoff return and sat out the fourth quarter.
Reese Ryan had an efficient night at quarterback. He threw for 124 yards, including 10 passes to David Bouvier for 77 yards. Ryan also ran for 73 yards and a TD as Lexington Catholic improved its all-time record against Mercer County to 9-0.
Next up for the Knights is Highlands, which beat Covington Catholic 28-13 Friday night for its 33rd consecutive playoff victory.
"We know it's a great challenge," Letton said. "But we're a hungry football team. We'll give it our best shot."
Mitchell said he was going to celebrate the win over Mercer County "for about 10 minutes" before turning his thoughts to Highlands.
"We owe them for the last two years," he said.
Lexington Catholic 49, Mercer Co. 14
Mercer County 3 8 3 0—14
Lexington Catholic 7 10 18 14—49
MC—Travis Fox 26 field goal. LC—Marcelis Logan 2 run (Donovan Morris kick). LC—Morris 26 field goal. LC—Logan 16 run (Morris kick). MC—Layne Peavler 46 pass from Chris Crawley-Goodman (Crawley-Goodman run). LC—Logan 58 run (kick failed). LC—Zach Middleton 25 interception return (run failed). MC—Fox 28 field goal. LC—Logan 94 kickoff return (kick failed). LC—Reese Ryan 1 run (Morris kick). LC—Andy Hickey 28 pass from Andy Thompson (Morris kick).
Records—Mercer Co. 8-5; LexCath 10-3