Late comeback leads to heartbreak for University Christian in Class 1M state semifinal

Clearwater Central Catholic overcomes big game from Orel Gray for 34-29 win

University Christian's Orel Gray rips off a long run during the Class 1M state semifinals against Clearwater Central Catholic on Friday night. UC fell 34-29 in a back-and-forth classic. (Kevin Nguyen) (Kevin Nguyen, News4JAX)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Orel Gray did everything Friday night to get University Christian into the state championship game, rolling up 348 all-purpose yards.

But the difference between 348 and 349 is the difference between staying home and playing in the Class 1M state title game.

With the host Christians holding a five-point lead with 2 minutes, 22 seconds left in the game, Gray was stopped shy of converting a fourth down, falling less than a yard short on a fourth-and-3. It took Clearwater Central Catholic less than two minutes to drive 85 yards, with Nate Johnson hauling in a 16-yard touchdown pass from Jershaun Newton with 30 seconds left to cap a 20-point fourth quarter.

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PHOTO GALLERY | Clearwater Central Catholic 34, University Christian 29

A UC desperation pass was picked off at the goal line with no time left, sending the Marauders (12-1) into the state championship game with a 34-29 victory over the Christians (11-2). So, Central Catholic will meet Chaminade-Madonna for the title, while UC’s season is finished.

It also closes the books on a tremendous season and career for Gray, who totaled 3,167 all-purpose yards this year with 37 touchdowns, including a 44-yard scoring run and an 89-yard kickoff return for his team’s only fourth-quarter points against the Marauders.

Gray ends his high school career with 6,031 all-purpose yards and 73 touchdowns.

“I want to thank all my coaches, all my teammates,” said Gray, who rushed for 236 yards. “I had a great career at University Christian. I just wanted to see where God leads me, and it was all worth it. Come to a great school, come to a great program. I had a great career, a great legacy.”

A state title, however, will remain elusive. The Christians, ranked third in Class 1M in the FHSAA power rankings, were aiming for their first title-game appearance since 2017, when they lost the 2A title to Hialeah Champagnat.

Penalties are certainly the main culprit for falling a game short, with UC being flagged 19 times for 149 yards, in a sense negating all but 200 of Gray’s yards.

Aside from setting back drives and extending Central Catholic possessions, penalties wiped out a fourth-quarter touchdown pass, with the Christians not scoring any points on the drive, and helped station the Marauders 15 yards away from the end zone on the kick after Gray’s weaving return for touchdown extended the UC lead to 29-20 with 9:14 left.

“They killed us,” Christians coach David Penland said. “In the game of football, you’ve got to overcome them.”

UC had overcome them for the most part, and the Christians appeared in good shape. Following Lenwood Sapp’s 1-yard scoring run that trimmed the UC lead to 29-27, the Christians began a drive at the Marauders 47 with 6:56 left after a 25-yard kick return by Gray. Nearly five minutes later, and with Central Catholic burning all its timeouts, UC could end the game with a first down.

On fourth-and-3 from the Marauders 18, Gray went into the middle of the line. He was held up a bit in the pile, and the mark was short enough for the officials to not measure.

Gray and Penland both thought he had made it, but both admitted it was tight either way.

“It was close. I thought he got across the line,” Penland said. “But they marked it back a little bit.”

The game was in the hands of Newton, Central Catholic’s unflappable sophomore quarterback.

“I was telling my receivers to get open, and they got open,” said Newton, who had 214 passing yards while misfiring on only two of his 13 attempts. “I’m never nervous. I’m calm. The team felt calm, and we just wanted to score.”

The Marauders took only seven plays to quickly move into scoring position, with Artrevian McClellan taking a pass over the middle and cutting back for a 35-yard gain to the Christians 16.

Following a spike to stop the clock, Newton found Johnson in the right corner of the end zone, with coverage draped all over him, for the touchdown with only 30 seconds left.

“I knew they were playing man coverage with no safety over the top,” said Johnson, who also blocked a field goal to end the first half. “I gave my quarterback a hands high (signal) to give him a heads up. He threw it right in the corner, and I went up and made the catch. No nerves.”

UC was able to get to the Central Catholic 43, but a desperation heave from quarterback Dwayne Stuckey fell into the hands of Marauders safety Gedonate Rich with no time left.

The Central Catholic players hugged and celebrated while players along the Christians’ sideline seemed in disbelief, with many in tears.

“It came down to, ‘May the best man win’,” said Gray, who was thrown for losses on only two of his 34 carries. “It was all good. I hope safe travels for (the Marauders) and that everything will be good for them.”

Those well-wishes easily could have been going to Gray and his teammates. UC’s 7-0 first-quarter lead was wiped away as Central Catholic rallied for two second-quarter touchdown passes by Newton, one on a slant that went for 82 yards to Julian Allen and the other being a 4-yarder to Diego Mouton.

The game shifted in the Christians’ favor to start the second half. It took only five plays for Gray, who finished the season with 2,094 rushing yards, to rip off his 44-yard run, breaking tackles for the score. After an offside penalty on the point-after, UC went for 2, and Gray converted for a 15-14 lead.

The Christians weren’t done. Johnson fumbled on the ensuing kickoff and only four plays later, Stuckey hooked up with Desirrio Riles for a 31-yard scoring play and a 22-14 lead.

There could have been more to start the fourth quarter. Offensive pass interference wiped out a touchdown pass on UC’s next drive and, facing fourth-and-4 at the Marauders 25, Stuckey fired incomplete to end the drive without points.

That set up a final quarter in which fourth-seeded Central Catholic outscored the Christians 20-7, ending the Christians’ run a game short of playing for a title.

“Our guys left it all on the field,” Penland said. “The seniors left their mark on this program. They did a great job.”

Clearwater Central Catholic 34, University Christian 29

Central Catholic, 0, 14, 0, 20 — 34

University Christian, 7, 0, 15, 7 — 29

UC – Jenoa Alford 18 pass from Dwayne Stuckey (Carson Hancock kick)

CC – Julian Allen 82 pass from Jershaun Newton (Eduardo Cosenza kick)

CC – Diego Mouton 4 pass from Newton (Cosenza kick)

UC – Orel Gray 44 run (Gray run)

UC – Desirrio Riles 31 pass from Stuckey (Hancock kick)

CC – Lenwood Sapp 3 run (run failed)

UC – Gray 89 kick return (Hancock kick)

CC – Sapp 1 run (Cosenza kick)

CC – Nate Johnson 16 pass from Newton (Cosenza kick)

Category: CC — UC

First downs: 15 — 19

Rushes-yards: 27-96 — 45-247

Passing: 214 — 179

Comp-Att-Int: 11-14-0 — 9-21-1

Fumbles-lost: 1-1 — 0-0

Penalties-Yards: 5-22 — 19-149

INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS

RUSHING — CC: Sapp 12-57, Johnson 2-26, Newton 13-13. UC: Gray 34-236, Alan Woods 6-21, Riles 1-2, Stuckey 4-(-12).

PASSING — CC: Newton 11-13-0-214, Team 0-1-0-0. UC: Stuckey 9-19-1-179, Team 0-2-0-0.

RECEIVING — CC: Allen 5-119, Johnson 3-52, Artrevian McClellan 1-35, Mouton 1-4, Luis Sanchez 1-4. UC: Riles 4-129, Alford 5-50.