Similarities are many for Hilliard Darby, Pickerington North
The Hilliard Darby and Pickerington North high school football teams both average more than 35 points and give up fewer than two touchdowns per game.
There also will be star power on display when the teams meet in a Division I, Region 3 semifinal at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10, at Gahanna, as Darby's Caleb Day (Illinois) and North's Jake Butt (Michigan) and Godwin Igwebuike (Northwestern) have committed to Big Ten schools.
Each team posted its program's best regular season, and each won its opening-round playoff game against an opponent it also had beaten during the regular season.
However, the teams, which share the nickname Panthers, have found success on offense using different methods.
While Darby has run its triple-option offense as well as any team in central Ohio this season, North has found success with an efficient passing game that supports the running abilities of Igwebuike.
Both teams have shined on defense throughout much of the season's second half.
"We're excited and we know we've got to have a great week of practice," Darby coach John Santagata said.
"Every win is very important," North coach Tom Phillips said. "That's our expectation, and we're excited to be doing it in a playoff atmosphere."
Darby, which is the top seed, defeated Westerville South 28-14 on Oct. 5 to begin a stretch of three games against the other top teams in the OCC-Cardinal Division. Darby followed with wins over Dublin Scioto (28-24 on Oct. 12), which also made the Region 3 playoffs, and Westerville Central (29-7 on Oct. 19) before closing out its first perfect regular season with a 42-0 win over Hilliard Bradley on Oct. 26.
On Nov. 3, Darby got by Westerville South again, this time 31-10, to improve to 11-0. It was Darby's first playoff win since 2007.
Quarterback Chase Longwell, who has rushed for 934 yards and 14 touchdowns and is 48-for-79 passing for 822 yards with eight touchdowns and one interception, rushed for 155 yards and a touchdown and threw for a score in the playoff win.
Day has been a multifaceted option offensively, with 451 yards and nine touchdowns rushing and a team-leading 27 catches for 424 yards and five scores.
Hayden VanKirk has contributed 745 yards and 10 touchdowns rushing.
Defensively for North, Butt and Igwebuike have led a unit that has posted four shutouts after struggling to stop the run early in the season.
North had its hopes of a perfect regular season dashed when it lost to Grove City 13-10 on Oct. 26 and was forced to share the OCC-Ohio title with Pickerington Central at 6-1.
On Nov. 3 at home, however, fourth-seeded North earned a season sweep of Central with a 24-0 victory that improved it to 10-1. It was North's first playoff victory.
While Igwebuike has five interceptions and Roland Ladipo has four, linebacker Dylan Weigel, defensive backs Mason Olszewski and Kody Kasey, defensive tackle Geno Rollo and linebacker Warren Stoddard also have shined for North.
"(Our option) is a little bit different than (Hilliard) Davidson's because of all of the reads, but it all starts with our line and the push that they get," said Longwell, whose offensive line features Stephan Herron and Zach Williams. "It's great having a guy like Caleb on our side. He's a great athlete and it's incredible sometimes what he can do."
Offensively for North, Igwebuike has rushed for more than 1,500 yards and has scored 25 touchdowns. Butt has 52 catches for 707 yards and 10 touchdowns and Olszewski has thrown for more than 1,500 yards with 17 touchdowns and five interceptions.
Offensive lineman Chris Huhn, who has verbally committed to Western Kentucky, missed the first five games with an injury but has returned to join a line led by Grant Glackin and Jordan Grubb.
Cameron Kohl, Trevor Parker and Day lead a Darby defense that forced Westerville South to commit three turnovers in the playoff game.
Although Darby and North have never played, their coaches have a rivalry connection. Phillips is a graduate of New Middletown Springfield and Santagata graduated from Poland Seminary -- rival schools in Mahoning County.
Since Santagata took over in 2008, Darby has gone 35-16 and is in the playoffs for the third time in program history. He was an assistant in 2007 when Darby lost in a regional final and led the team to the 2010 playoffs when it lost to Springfield 22-7 in a first-round game.
North is 41-21 since Phillips became its coach in 2007. The only other playoff game in program history came in 2009 when North lost to Pickerington Central 14-12 in a first-round game.
"The goal is to get out of town (for neutral-site playoff games), and it was amazing to have that opportunity against Pickerington Central, our sister school," Phillips said. "We had to share the (OCC-Ohio) championship and this was what I thought was kind of for the championship of our league since we both had the same (OCC-Ohio) record.
"I know Darby's head coach because I'm from Youngstown and he's from Poland. To us back home, that's like what Pickerington Central-Pickerington North is to my children."