While the New Albany High School football team is finishing up perhaps its most rigorous stretch of the season, Gahanna is in the middle of its own.
Three of the Eagles' first four opponents were playoff teams in 2016, and their Friday, Sept. 15, visit to Gahanna is the second of four consecutive contests for the Lions against postseason qualifiers from last year.
"We wanted to load up our schedule with (potential) playoff points and we looked at this stretch knowing it was going to be tough," Lions quarterback Mike Lowery said. "Our offense has been playing with confidence, and we expect our defense to play how they've been playing so far. New Albany will be another big test."
Gahanna comes in at 2-1 after a 27-23 loss to visiting Cincinnati Elder on Sept. 8. Lowery completed 24 of 40 passes for 386 yards with one touchdown and one interception, but the Panthers won the game on Danny Nieman's 38-yard touchdown pass to Danny Faillace with 27 seconds left.
Elder's four touchdowns were the first such scores given up by the Lions this year.
New Albany is 1-2, coming off a 35-30 loss at Licking Heights on Sept. 8.
Nine penalties hurt the Eagles, a wing-T team that for the second consecutive week was forced into passing for more yards than it gained on the ground. New Albany gained a season-high 261 total yards, 123 on the ground and 138 in the air, a week after passing for 125 and rushing for just 70 in a 42-6 loss to Hilliard Bradley.
Quarterback Paxon Hunter completed 13 of 26 passes for 138 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, Michiah Burton rushed for 81 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries and Alex Cox added 35 yards and a touchdown on six carries.
The last of Hunter's touchdown passes came with 11 seconds left, a 10-yarder to Kenny McDonald that brought the Eagles to within five points, but their two-point conversion try failed.
"(Passing more than we run) is not what we want to do, but we saw the offensive line take a step forward last week," New Albany coach Pat Samanich said. "We have a lot of holes to fill from last year. We'll improve with reps and pointing out to our backs where the cuts are. It will come."
Justus Harris has rushed for 375 yards and five touchdowns on 62 carries to lead Gahanna. David Miller has caught 15 passes for 298 yards and two touchdowns.
"The run game has surprised us so far. We thought passing would be our main thing this year," Lowery said, crediting an offensive line that is led by left guard David Huguely, left tackle Mason Helsel and center Riley Lutsko.
Lions defensive back Cameren Carlisle had 9.5 tackles, seven solo, against Elder.
"That defense is just sheer athleticism. They look like they're on the track waiting for the gun to fire and then they're in your backfield right away," Samanich said. "Lowery gets the ball out of his hands real quick and that run game has really improved. Harris can turn on the jets and he's gone."
Gahanna won the first meeting between the programs 28-24 last year. The Lions outscored the Eagles 14-3 in the fourth quarter and Lowery threw the winning 30-yard touchdown pass to 2017 graduate Dominic Taylor with 1:31 left.