Winners of five of its past six postseason games, the New Albany High School football team knows what it must do to advance.
"If you want to win in November, you run the ball and play great defense," coach Pat Samanich said after a 26-22 win over Mansfield Senior in a Division II, Region 5 semifinal Nov. 15 at Olentangy Liberty. "It's not the most flashy thing in the world. We're not going to put a lot of people in the stands, but the guys that understand and appreciate it are our offensive line up front and our entire defense."
Samanich also knows best-laid plans can be rendered moot in the bat of an eye.
Top-seeded New Albany will face its toughest test yet when the 11-1 Eagles take on 12-0 Zanesville in a regional final Friday, Nov. 22, at DeSales. The third-seeded Blue Devils average 50.1 points behind 3,000-yard passer Thomas Wibbeler and an array of talented receivers and running backs. They also haven't allowed a point since Oct. 18.
"There are only eight teams left in the state (in Division II) and they're all going to be pretty good," Samanich said of Zanesville, which defeated Worthington Kilbourne 36-0 in the other regional semifinal Nov. 15 and finished the regular season as the top-ranked team in Division II. "They have a ton of weapons and love to spread out your defense. You can tell right away that (Wibbeler) had a great grasp of their system."
New Albany is seeking its second consecutive regional championship and third overall.
A defense that limited previously undefeated Mansfield to five rushing yards likely will get another stiff test from a Zanesville team that hasn't scored fewer than 28 points in a game.
Wibbeler is 174-for-266 passing for 3,118 yards with 43 touchdowns and six interceptions. Senior running back Jamal Gladden has rushed for 1,270 yards and 19 touchdowns on 167 carries, senior receiver Dar Stanford has 54 catches for 1,034 yards and 14 touchdowns, and senior receiver J.T. McFarland has 47 catches for 783 yards and nine scores.
Gladden had 157 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries against Kilbourne, but it was Zanesville's defense that took center-stage. Five Blue Devils had interceptions, including Trey Scoles' 30-yard return for a touchdown, and the Wolves were held to five first down and 147 total yards.
Zanesville hasn't surrendered an offensive touchdown in 19 quarters and has four consecutive shutouts.
Senior linebacker Tristan Rock had team highs of 90 tackles and eight sacks in the regular season. Senior defensive lineman David Johnson had 38 tackles and seven sacks.
"No. 1 for us is we absolutely have to limit their penetration into our backfield," Samanich said. "They do a great job of running to the football. They stretched Kilbourne out and took advantage."
The Eagles were as healthy and on-point against Mansfield as they have been since mid-October, rolling up 339 yards rushing. Senior running back Trey Quillin had 182 yards on 17 carries, including touchdowns of 45 and 1 yard in the first half.
Sophomore kicker Joey Rolwing had field goals of 40 and 44 yards, and senior quarterback Tanner Cline scored the winning touchdown on a 1-yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter.
But New Albany hung its hat on a defense that never let Mansfield quarterback Jalen Reese get comfortable. Thanks in part to the efforts of senior cornerbacks Tyrell Howard and Jalen Ward, Reese rarely targeted 6-foot-7 receiver Robert Jones. He instead threw two touchdown passes to Chek Washington.
Senior linebacker Hayden Hatten, the district's Defensive Player of the Year, and senior defensive lineman George Kalec sacked Reese on three consecutive plays in the fourth quarter.
The return of senior receiver/safety Joe Siegenthaler also helped. Siegenthaler, who had been out since a 14-12 loss to Kilbourne on Oct. 25 with a meniscus injury, had five catches for 54 yards but perhaps as importantly, his presence funneled others back to their natural positions.
"He's always limping around, but he's one of the toughest kids I've ever met and he's always playing for the team. It was huge having him back," said Quillin, also a defensive end who wasn't surprised at that unit's dominance.
"We expect them not to gain a yard. We set ourselves up for the highest expectations possible and we expect to meet them every game. Anything less than that is disappointing."
The regional champion plays in a state semifinal Nov. 29 against Cincinnati Mount Healthy or Loveland.
"We want to keep writing our own legacy," said Hatten, who played through a left ankle injury sustained in a 35-21 first-round win over Northland on Nov. 8. "We got to week 14 last year (a 33-32 state semifinal loss to Trotwood-Madison) and this senior class wants to get right back there."