Its record aside, Hilliard Darby High School football coach John Santagata needed to watch only a few minutes of game film to know this week's opponent, Westerville North, has improved quite a bit since last season.
The Panthers play host to North on Friday, Sept. 20, in the opening week of OCC-Cardinal Division play. Last season, Darby rolled to a 45-7 win over the Warriors, who finished 0-10 and saw their losing streak climb to 45 games.
North ended its skid with a convincing 48-21 win over Franklin Heights in its opener Aug. 30 and beat Newark 42-35 on Sept. 6 before falling to 2-1 with a 34-14 loss to Reynoldsburg on Sept. 13.
"They have definite offensive and defensive systems they're committed to with their coach (Rodger Elander)," Santagata said. "The level of execution has gone up considerably since we saw them last year. What they're doing, they're doing well. The longer you do something, the more consistent the system and the more committed everyone will be, and that's what you see with (North)."
Darby, which improved to 2-1 with a 34-14 win over Toledo St. John's on Sept. 13, won its first league championship a year ago, going 7-0 in the OCC-Cardinal to finish ahead of Dublin Scioto (6-1), Westerville South (5-2), Westerville Central (4-3), Dublin Jerome (3-4), Worthington Kilbourne (2-5), Hilliard Bradley (1-6) and North (0-7).
"(League play) will be a big focus (this week)," Santagata said. "It's something we put a lot of emphasis on around here."
The Panthers have ridden a deep stable of running backs thus far. They amassed 288 yards rushing against St. John's, with five players gaining at least 40 yards. Running back Patrick Enright led the team with 76 yards on nine carries.
Also in the contest, running back Jacob Stacy had touchdown runs of 10 and 11 yards, fullback Lorenzo McLaurin scored on a 9-yard run and quarterback Nate Green had a 2-yard scoring run and a 9-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Zack Donatelli.
North compiled 502 yards rushing against Newark but was limited to 207 total yards and committed two turnovers against Reynoldsburg.
Quarterback Jake Downs was 4-for-14 passing for 32 yards and an interception against the Raiders, who led 24-0 in the second quarter and 31-7 at halftime. The Warriors scored on a 48-yard fumble return by linebacker Andrew Malick in the second quarter and a 7-yard run by running back Jake Hinz in the fourth quarter.
North's other top offensive threats include running backs Andy Struttmann (19 carries, 213 yards, 4 TDs) and John Taylor (31 carries, 227 yards, 4 TDs). The 6-foot-2, 231-pound Struttmann also anchors the defense at linebacker and is second on the team in tackles with 37, behind another linebacker in Hinz (45).
Darby's 4-3 defense features only two returning starters from a year ago in tackle Brian Casey and linebacker Trevor Parker.
"We felt good for the first two weeks (of the season) for the first time in a long time," Elander said. "We handled a little adversity in those games and came back (to win), but (Darby) will be a bit of a challenge for us. That's life in the OCC. There are no cakewalks. There are no weeks off."