When Pickerington High School North football coach Tom Phillips talked about his team's defense after winning the first regional title in program history, he used words like discipline and character.
Those qualities, combined with the unit's speed, helped the fourth-seeded Panthers defeat seventh-seeded Hilliard Davidson 21-0 in the Division I, Region 3 final Nov. 17 at Ohio Wesleyan University.
The shutout was their second in three playoff games and fifth of the season.
North, which improved to 12-1, hopes to build on that defensive performance when it faces Cincinnati Moeller in a state semifinal at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 24, at Welcome Stadium in Dayton. The Crusaders upset previously undefeated Cincinnati Colerain 24-21 in the Region 4 final Nov. 17 to improve to 10-3.
The winner plays Mentor or Toledo Whitmer in the state final at 7 p.m. Dec. 1 at Fawcett Stadium in Canton.
North is averaging 36.5 points per game and allowing an average of 10. Moeller, which is a member of the Greater Catholic League, is averaging 37.7 points and allowing 27.8 against a challenging schedule. Only one of the Crusaders' opponents finished with a losing record.
"Our coaching staff does a great job of preparing us and scouting teams and we just have to execute," senior linebacker Warren Stoddard said of the Panthers' defense. "I really think everyone jells off of each other. We just really play as a team and have come together at the right time."
Stoddard made what might be the biggest defensive play of the season for North when he recovered a fumble by Davidson running back D.D. Clark at the Panthers' 47-yard line with 6 minutes, 37 seconds left in the third quarter.
North scored four plays later on a 30-yard run by Zeph Miller to extend its lead to 14-0.
The Panthers allowed only one play of 20 yards or more against Davidson. Wildcats quarterback Nick Waters connected with Phillipie Motley on a 44-yard pass with 11:09 remaining, but the drive ended four plays later when running back E.J. Jennings was stopped by Mason Olszewski and Godwin Igwebuike for no gain on fourth-and-2 from the North 10.
The pass to Motley was the only one attempt by Davidson's option offense. Moeller, however, has a much more balanced offense.
Senior quarterback Spencer Iacovone (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) has completed 134 of 222 passes for 1,717 yards and 17 touchdowns and has rushed for 744 yards and 11 touchdowns on 137 attempts.
Senior running back Keith Watkins (6-0, 180) rushed for 203 yards and one touchdown on 33 carries against Colerain and has 1,963 yards rushing on 255 carries and 24 touchdowns on the season. He also has 31 receptions for 378 yards and two touchdowns.
The Crusaders' top wide receivers are Gus Ragland (35 catches, 5 touchdowns) and Casey Pieper (27 catches, 6 touchdowns).
North lost the time-of-possession battle with Davidson by 13 minutes, but the Panthers took advantage of their offensive chances.
Olszewski was 9-for-15 passing for 101 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown pass to Igwebuike with 4:41 remaining. Igwebuike, who was named district Offensive Player of the Year, was held to 49 yards rushing and one touchdown on 12 carries.
Although the Panthers rotated Olszewski and Miller at quarterback at times during the regular season, Olszewski has taken nearly every snap in the postseason.
Against Davidson, Miller completed a pass for 10 yards in addition to his touchdown run.
Moeller, the third seed in Region 4, was outgained 352-287 in total yards by top-seeded Colerain.
The Crusaders' defense is led by defensive back Logan Kelleher and linebackers Shane Jones and Nick Szabados. Kelleher has six interceptions, Jones has 72 tackles and Szabados has 65 tackles and two interceptions.
"Moeller is a physical team and does probably a 50-50 mix of the run and pass," Phillips said. "It's very humbling (to be the Region 3 champion) and we're happy to be practicing on Thanksgiving week."