BY JAMES COOK
TRAVERSE CITY — There were 48 veterans holding flags high on the field during the first Patriot Game ceremony honoring those that have served the country in the armed forces — one for each upcoming minute of the football game at hand.
After that, Traverse City Central controlled most of those 48 minutes, holding the Nowak-Olson Trophy high as the student section sang the Trojan fight song after a 42-28 victory Friday over crosstown rival Traverse City West.
The win puts TC Central at 5-1 for the first time since the split and in prime position to clinch a playoff berth soon for just the second time in Tom Passinault's six-year tenure.
"It's the biggest win of the season," said sophomore defensive end Rhys Adle. "It's huge for the conference. It's huge for our record. It's huge for our self-esteem and everything."
Holding on to a 21-7 lead at halftime, the Trojans flashed back to last week, when they held an identical lead over Ogemaw Heights before the Falcons came back to knot it up at 21-21 in the third quarter. Central rallied in the fourth to earn a 49-21 win, but the Trojan players didn't want to be in the same situation.
So they forced a three-and-out on West's first two drives of the second half, setting up field position for a short 25-yard drive that ended in a T.J. Schepperly 33-yard pass to Ethan Campbell for a 28-7 lead.
A sack by Mitch Wynkoop gave West an 8-yard loss and helped stymie the Titans' second drive of the half.
"Going into halftime last week against Ogemaw, we were up 21-7 and we let them tie it up," Wynkoop said. "We just didn't want that to happen again. So we really fought hard and won the second half."
"The biggest thing when we came out was to hit," Schepperly said. "We came out the first half and we did a pretty good job of setting a tone. But the second half, we had to crack down. With what happened last week, being up big and then having them come back, we really had to set the tone in the second half."
Campbell ended up figuring into four of the Trojans' six touchdowns — all in his first start of the season.
With normal starting fullback and middle linebacker Nate Pupel out with a deep thigh bruise, Campbell stepped into his place on offense and Josiah Wild-Lopez on defense as the Trojans halted West's two-game win streak in the rivalry series.
"All around, our defense really stepped up," Wynkoop said. "We had Nate Pupel out, and Josiah Lopez-Wild stepped up and really filled that role well."
Campbell did as well.
After TC West (4-2, 3-1 Big North Conference) went up 7-0 on a 3-yard run by Grant Ellison, Campbell didn't let the Titans' only lead of the game last very long, returning the ensuing kick 99 yards to even it up 7-7 after Jake Gorter's extra point.
"We were three-and-out and then they went up 7-0," Passinault said. "Then to have that run to come right back to tie the game, you could just feel on the sidelines how big a play that was. We have some good 10th-graders on our team, and Ethan stepped up when (T.J.) Schwannecke's shoulder got banged up a little bit."
A senior, Pupel was the first Trojan player to get to handle the Nowak-Olson Trophy, carrying it over to the Central student section as the team joined the students in the school fight song.
"He's a huge leader on our team," Adle said. "During the week he said we had to step up. He was vocal on the sidelines, so that was great."
Schepperly added a 19-yard touchdown pass to Drew Reamer for a 14-7 lead and Campbell's 22-yard TD run gave Central a 21-7 halftime bulge.
A Schepperly 33-yard pass to Campbell — as Schepperly was leveled by West's Chris Doherty — gave the Trojans a 28-7 lead with 3:37 left in the third quarter.
West came right back on the strength of its passing game, scoring on a six-play drive in which every down was a pass, ending with an 8-yard roll-out pass from Donny Cizek to Grant Balino. That made it 28-14.
A Tyler Johnson interception gave the Titans the ball back, the game appeared to turn. West again put together a six-play drive of nothing but passes that ended with a Cizek 32-yard, over-the-shoulder pass to Zack McGuire as the pocket was collapsing to draw within a score at 28-21.
Then the back-breaker came on the next play from scrimmage, as Schepperly kept the ball on a sweep to the right, made one cut and was gone for an untouched 60-yard score with 10:16 left on the clock.
"Our wide receivers have done a great job this year blocking," Schepperly said. "And my little brother Joey had a great, great block to set all that up."
The 35-21 lead would expand to 42-21. After West was stalled out when Lopez-Wild and Wynkoop stuffed a fourth-and-2 run, the Trojans marched back the other way, keeping the ball mostly in the hands of Schepperly and Campbell.
"When you have a quarterback like Shepperly, it bails you out of situations," Passinault said. "We had the bad snap that would have been 2nd-and-30 probably, and he turned it into 2nd-and-15. They scored to cut it to seven — and then he had that 60-yard run."
That drive ended in Campbell rolling out on a fake run on 4th-and-8 and finding Scwannecke wide open on a halfback pass for a 28-yard touchdown and a 42-21 lead.
West added a 3-yard TD pass from Cizek for Balino with 2:38 left, but the Titans weren't able to recover the ensuing on-side kick as Adle came up with it.
Cizek set a Central-West game record with 390 yards on 17 of 27 passing.
Campbell led the Trojans with 107 yards rushing on 14 carries, while T.J. Schepperly added 84 yards. Reamer caught four passes for 55 yards.
Lopez-Wild led Central's defense with 12 stops, while Derrick Diver had 11 for West, including three for loss.