The Pickerington High School North football team had the breakthrough season it was seeking this fall.
In their first nine seasons, the Panthers earned their only league title when they shared the OCC-Central Division championship with Marysville in 2007 and made their lone postseason appearance in 2009, losing to Pickerington Central 14-12 in the first round of the Division I, Region 3 playoffs.
With a senior class that included a trio of Division I college recruits, North lived up to the accolades that had it listed in the "best of the rest" of the Super 25 preseason national rankings compiled by USA Today.
The Panthers finished 12-2 overall and went 6-1 in the OCC-Ohio to tie Central for the title. Reynoldsburg (5-2) was third, followed by Gahanna (4-3), Grove City (4-3), Lancaster (2-5), Newark (1-6) and Groveport (0-7).
North lost its regular-season finale to Grove City, 13-10 on Oct. 26.
Seeded fourth in Region 3, the Panthers beat fifth-seeded Central 24-0 in the first round Nov. 3, top-seeded Hilliard Darby 24-14 in a semifinal Nov. 10 and seventh-seeded Hilliard Davidson 21-0 in the final Nov. 17 before losing to Cincinnati Moeller 26-21 in a state semifinal Nov. 24 at Welcome Stadium in Dayton.
North had lost its first four meetings with Central before beating the Tigers twice this season, including 37-0 on Sept. 28.
"We made history, set the bar high for years to come and had a lot of fun doing it," senior running back and defensive back Godwin Igwebuike said.
Igwebuike was a big reason for the success.
A Northwestern recruit who was named district Offensive Player of the Year, Igwebuike rushed for 194 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries against Moeller. His 76-yard touchdown run gave the Panthers a 14-13 lead midway through the third quarter.
Moeller went ahead 20-14 late in the third quarter, but North answered with a 55-yard touchdown pass from junior Zeph Miller to junior Justin Childers with 11 minutes, 23 seconds left.
After Moeller took a 26-21 lead with 3:50 remaining, North moved into position for the winning score. On fourth-and-goal from the Moeller 5, Igwebuike took a direct snap and ran toward the end zone but he fumbled as he was being tackled just short of the goal line.
Moeller recovered with 32 seconds left and ran out the clock.
The Crusaders improved to 11-3 and advanced to play Toledo Whitmer (14-0) in the state final Saturday, Dec. 1, at Fawcett Stadium in Canton.
"There was no doubt (the direct snap to Igwebuike) was the play we wanted to run," said coach Tom Phillips, who is 43-22 in six seasons leading the program. "Godwin had the choice of either running it or dumping it off. We had the voice of the seniors on that and I think you've got to go with it. You trust your kids.
"I had total belief in this team, and it was a good journey. It was a fun year and hopefully it'll rub off on the juniors and sophomores. They were very humble and made the game fun."
Igwebuike finished with 1,981 yards and 25 touchdowns on 229 carries and had 15 catches for 179 yards and three touchdowns.
The other seniors who have verbally committed to Division I colleges are Jake Butt (TE/LB, Michigan) and Chris Huhn (OL, Western Kentucky). Huhn missed half of the regular season with an injury.
Butt had four catches for 48 yards against Moeller and finished with 68 catches for 902 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Olszewski completed nine of 18 passes for 99 yards against Moeller and finished 126-for-204 passing for 1,860 yards with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also rushed for 567 yards and three touchdowns.
Seniors Jamie Hence (16 catches for 398 yards) and Roland Ladipo (18 catches for 176 yards) were other key skill-position players.
Butt made first-team all-district as a tight end and senior offensive lineman Grant Glackin was special mention all-district. Olszewski averaged 39 yards per punt to make second-team all-district.
Junior kicker Karch Holland made nine field goals and was honorable mention all-district.
Ladipo was second-team all-district at defensive back.
Other senior starters on defense were Butt (LB), Igwebuike (DB), Olszewski (DB), Trae Harris (DL), Kody Kasey (DB) and Warren Stoddard (LB).
Junior linebacker Dylan Weigel, who was a captain and made special mention all-district, is expected to lead the defense next season.
Other key players on defense who are expected to return are Childers (DB), juniors Alex Reigle (DL) and Geno Rollo (DL) and sophomore Frankie Weirick (LB).
Miller is the leading candidate to take over at quarterback. He split time with Olszewski during the first half of the regular season and saw limited action under center in the playoffs. Miller completed 25 of 41 passes for 476 yards with five touchdowns and rushed 44 times for 271 yards.
Childers finished with seven catches for 224 yards and four touchdowns and should be the top returning wide receiver.
"It was a good season for our program," Weigel said. "We broke a lot of records and beat Central. The senior class did a great job of leading us and we'll have big shoes to fill next year. I think we'll have a lot of people step up and this is going to get guys more hungry.
"We were a yard or two away from going to Canton, so that's probably going to be one of our mottos for next year."