High School Football

‘That’s the kind of message I want to send.’ Revenge tour starts strong for one state champ.

One of the state’s best first-round games went to a defending state champion looking to make up for a regular-season defeat.

Christian Academy of Louisville upended Mercer County, 34-14, in the Class 3A UK Orthopaedics/KHSAA Commonwealth Gridiron Bowl playoffs Friday night. The teams exchanged leads in the first quarter before CAL scored 28 unanswered points in the first half to build a 20-point advantage; neither team got on the scoreboard over the game’s final 24 minutes.

CAL won its second state championship in three years last season as a Class 2A school. This is its first season in Class 3A, but it’ll meet a familiar foe next week: longtime rival DeSales, another 2A-to-3A transplant, routed Western Hills, 49-7, Friday night in Louisville.

DeSales next week will host the Centurions, whom in October they defeated 35-28 in double overtime. Mercer County was the only other 3A team that beat CAL in the regular season; its eager for more vengeance.

“We want some revenge,” said senior quarterback Anthony Sabatino. “After that, we gotta take it slow. Step by step.”

Sabatino finished 17 of 23 for 296 yards and three touchdowns for the Centurions (7-4). He was the starting quarterback last season during their state-title run despite having not being a natural at the position; the converted slot receiver and linebacker was forced into action by then-head coach Stefan LeFors due to a lack of available arms and first-year head coach Hunter Cantwell has kept him under center.

“We didn’t have a quarterback coming into my junior year so Coach LeFors asked me to play,” said Sabatino, who in addition to 21 TD throws also rushed for six scores in the regular season. “I just took that step up and played and we had a great year.”

It helps to have a stout offensive line in front of him. Leading the charge is John Young, a senior who’s committed to the University of Kentucky. The four-star prospect is considered a top-30 offensive tackle in the nation, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings. He spurned Auburn, Georgia and Florida State to join the Wildcats.

Sabatino said Young has been like a brother to him. Young described Sabatino as one of the best quarterbacks in the state.

“I’ve got this kid’s back through everything,” Young said. “He was asked to do a big role last year, came up, wins us a state championship, came back and does it again.”

Young quickly caught himself and grinned.

“He’s gonna do it again this year,” Young said. “This kid’s a gamer, he gets it done. I’d lay my life down for him.”

Temperatures dipped below freezing on Friday night but Young — sans long sleeves — thrived, and frequently wrestled his defender to the ground to extend plays for Sabatino and running back Brandt Babin, who scored CAL’s other two TDs.

“I believe that football, it’s won and lost in between the ears,” Young said. “It’s half mental out there. So if I can get into a guy’s head, if I can intimidate him, if I can show him the cold’s not gonna play an effect on me, nothing’s gonna play an effect on me. If I can plant you to the ground through the whistle every single play until the clock strikes zero, that’s what I’m gonna do.”

“That’s the kind of message I want to send these guys and it’s the kind of message I want to send to DeSales next week when they’re watching this film. That’s where that comes from.”

Josh Moore is in his first year covering the University of Kentucky football team and in his fifth year reporting for the Lexington Herald-Leader, where he’s been employed since 2009. Moore, a Martin County native, graduated from UK with a B.A. in Integrated Strategic Communication and English in 2013. He’s a huge fan of the NBA, Power Rangers and country music.