December 3, 2001 at 3:40 PM EST - Updated July 3 at 1:40 AM
By RUSTY MILLER, AP Sports Writer
CANTON, Ohio (AP) - What a difference six weeks make.
Close to being left out of the playoffs a month and a half ago with a 5-4 record and a three-game losing skid, mighty Cleveland St. Ignatius proved again on Saturday night that the most important game to win is the last one.
Nate Szep passed for three touchdowns and St. Ignatius' rock-hard defense harassed Cincinnati St. Xavier all night in a 37-6 victory that gave the Wildcats their ninth Division I state championship.
It was quite a turnaround for the storied prep powerhouse, at risk of watching the postseason from the sidelines after losing to the same St. Xavier team 42-41 at home in the ninth week of the season.
"We just kept the faith and realized that if we got into the playoffs, everyone stands at 0-0," St. Ignatius coach Chuck Kyle said.
St. Xavier, averaging 31.5 points a game, permitted eight sacks and ended up with minus-25 yards on 23 rushing attempts.
Division I defensive player of the year John Kerr was at a loss to explain the difference between the first meeting with St. Xavier and the title game.
"I really can't explain it other than we played very well as a team tonight," he said. "The Lord allowed us to win."
Unranked St. Ignatius (11-4) became the highest-seeded team to ever win a state title. The Wildcats were seeded No. 7 in their eight-team region.
"Once we got in, we played better each week and the kids realized they could play with anyone," Kile said.
St. Xavier (13-1) dropped to 0-3 in championship games -- including losses to St. Ignatius in 1992 and Canton McKinley in 1998.
Szep completed 18-of-27 passes for 280 yards with one interception. Tony Gonzalez had seven receptions for 144 yards and a touchdown. And when the Wildcats weren't passing over the Bombers, they were running through them: Carter Welo carried 27 times for 126 yards and a score.
The Wildcats did most of their damage in the first half -- scoring on four of their five possessions -- in building a 23-0 lead.
Szep connected with Gonzalez on a 37-yard gainer the first time St. Ignatius got the ball. Three plays later, Szep pump-faked to freeze the secondary and then lobbed a spiral to the right corner where Gonzalez pulled the ball in over his shoulder for the 32-yard touchdown.
Szep was intercepted by first-team all-stater Mike Hurley at the goal line on the Wildcats' next possession, but led a six-play, 47-yard drive that made it 14-0. Welo covered the last eight yards after cutting off left tackle for the score.
St. Ignatius' offensive line sealed off the pocket so Szep had plenty of time to throw and created massive holes for Welo to slice into the St. Xavier secondary.
Szep hit 4-of-5 passes including the 23-yard scoring pass to Tom Christy, to make it 20-0. Then Phil Gibbs, who had earlier missed an extra-point kick, drilled a 27-yard field goal in the final minute of the half.
St. Xavier rushed 13 times for minus-2 yards in the opening half. Balanced against that, the Wildcats had 89 yards on the ground and Szep completed 14-of-20 passes for 207 yards and the two scores.
The Bombers finally got untracked and on the board in the third quarter on first-team All-Ohioan Matt Vogele's 2-yard plunge, but St. Ignatius added two more touchdowns.
The ninth title extended the Wildcats' own state record. They broke a tie with Cincinnati Moeller when they won the 1999 title for their eighth crown.
Mentor Lake Catholic, seeded fifth in its region, beat Columbus DeSales 27-21 in overtime Friday to win the Division III title. No team seeded higher than fourth had ever won a state title before this season.
(Copyright 2001 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)