About the only thing more ruthlessly chilly than the air on Friday evening was Center Grove’s defense.
The Trojans choked out a dangerous Avon offense and sophomore Carson Steele ground out 240 yards rushing as Center Grove earned its 12th regional crown in 17 seasons with a dominating 17-0 victory.
Next up will be a trip to top-ranked Warren Central for a Class 6A semistate clash next Friday.
"Our defense was the difference tonight, man," Center Grove coach Eric Moore said. "They just played lights out and made big plays when we needed to, didn’t give up the big play. That’s huge."
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Points were tough to come by for either side for much of the evening.
Center Grove (9-3) appeared to be on its way to an early score when Steele took a screen pass from Jackson Moore 53 yards to the Avon 1. The Orioles, though, tightened up and made a goal-line stand, then made another fourth-down stop on the Trojans’ next possession in a scoreless first quarter.
Held in check early on (just 25 yards on his first 11 carries), Steele got the home side on the board with 10:22 left in the half. The sophomore appeared to get stood up at the line before spinning free and breaking away for a 65-yard touchdown run.
Avon looked to be building some momentum in the other direction, moving into Trojan territory for the first time. But a Henry Hesson throw was tipped and found the waiting arms of Center Grove senior Matt Pence, who dashed 67 yards untouched up the right sideline to stretch the lead to 14 with 8:25 to go in the second.
"As soon as I caught the ball, I just thought end zone," Pence said. "That’s all I could think about. I’ve been thinking about that day for so long."
The Trojans, who yielded just 62 yards in the first two quarters, bled the Orioles dry in the second half, most notably with an 8-minute, 47-second drive that was capped by a 28-yard Luke Eckert field goal with 4:39 remaining.
Chris Martin recovered an Avon fumble just seconds later, and Center Grove ran out the remaining time.
Steele ate up much of the second-half clock, carrying the ball 37 times on the night. With 129 of his yards coming on two runs, much of the sophomore’s night was spent grinding out tough yardage between the tackles.
"Carson Steele, what can you say?" Moore said. "Great effort, great inside-out effort. I know he broke loose up the field, but it’s tough to get those inside yards, and he burned like the last five minutes against a great team like that."
Having avenged last year’s regional defeat against the Orioles, the Trojans can turn their attention to the unbeaten Warriors, who won the season-opening tilt between the two rivals, 27-15.
"I’m glad to be back there," Moore said of getting back into the semistate round after falling a game short last season. "We’re not finished, though."
"This team, we can take on anyone," Pence added. "The only team that can beat us is ourselves, and I believe that."