Local squads no longer a 'gimmie'
For years, the balance of power in Ohio high school football was at opposite ends of the state -- the northeast and southwest.
But central Ohio has been making inroads. Since 2000, nine of the 12 Division I state titles have been won by teams from northeastern or southwestern Ohio. The three dissenting championships came from central Ohio: Upper Arlington in 2000 and Hilliard Davidson in 2006 and 2009.
Southwestern Ohio has won five titles in that span, including two each for Cincinnati St. Xavier (2005 and 2007) and Cincinnati Elder (2002 and 2003), and one for Cincinnati Colerain (2004). Northeastern Ohio has four championships: Cleveland St. Ignatius in 2001, 2008 and 2011, and Lakewood St. Edward in 2010.
Pickerington Central lost to St. Ignatius 34-13 in the Division I title game last season, but not without defeating St. Xavier 14-7 in a state semifinal. The Tigers' semifinal win was significant because they had lost to St. Xavier 38-21 in the second week of the regular season.
Playing that game undoubtedly helped the Tigers in their postseason run. But also, Pickerington Central opened 0-2 after also losing to Cincinnati Moeller 14-0 the first week.
"If you want to play with them, you have to play them," said Central coach Jay Sharrett, whose team lost its opener this season at Colerain, 28-15 on Aug. 25. "You don't want to play a state power by running into them in the fourth or fifth round of the playoffs.
"When you play in those types of games, that kind of experience can be so valuable. To go toe-to-toe with a team and be able to play with them for four quarters is great. You get to see how fast they are, how big they are, and you get a better understanding of how you measure up against them."
Other area teams are following that line of thinking. This week, Pickerington North plays at home Friday, Aug. 31, against Cincinnati Princeton and Upper Arlington plays host to Elder the same night.
"We think we have a good, responsible schedule and it's a schedule that would allow us -- if we are fortunate enough to make the playoffs -- to have more success," UA coach Mike Golden said. "That's what we expect at Upper Arlington and we're looking forward to it."
Reaching a state final -- and having a chance to hoist a championship trophy -- seems to run through the Southwest District. In Davidson's title runs, the Wildcats had to defeat Colerain (10-6 in 2006) and Elder (24-20 in 2009).
"It's great to see central Ohio teams branching out," Sharrett said. "I don't know if we still have a stigma around here like we used to have because people always used to think that they only had football in the northeast and southwest parts of the state. But I don't think that they look at playing a central Ohio team as being a 'gimme' anymore with what coach (Brian) White has done at Davidson and what we have done over the past couple of years."
The Tigers have made a habit of playing high-profile games. Pickerington Central defeated Orange (Calif.) Lutheran 28-14 in 2009 and Chesapeake (Va.) Oscar Smith 36-20 in 2010 in showcase events.
"Our guys, they prepare for a pretty tough schedule," Sharrett said. "With computer points being what they are, if you beat one of those teams, you get a lot of points. If you don't, you have to rebound, put together a nice run and get to the playoffs.
"When you get to the playoffs, anything can happen. When you play teams that may be traditionally bigger (population-wise) and have more size (physically) and then if you match up against them in the playoffs, you don't have as much of a shock. You know what to expect."
Which is exactly the reason Pickerington North and UA looked for an out-of-area team to complete their non-league schedules. To take that next step as a program, you have to play -- and eventually beat -- the best.