The coaches for the Pickerington North and Olentangy Liberty high school football teams found much to admire when they watched each other’s game film.
The teams have split their four meetings, with the Patriots scoring two touchdowns on gadget plays and edging the Panthers 33-28 last season.
The Panthers and Patriots both are 3-1 heading into their matchup Friday, Sept. 22, at Liberty.
The Patriots followed a 17-0 loss to Huber Heights Wayne on Sept. 1 by beating Marysville 32-21 on Sept. 8 and Hilliard Davidson 17-10 on Sept. 15.
“They’re solid at every position,” said first-year North coach Nate Hillerich, who is new to the matchup. “They have really tough kids and team speed and they don’t give up the big play. You have to earn everything you do against them. We’ll have to tackle well and be consistent.”
Like the Patriots, North’s loss came against an out-of-area program that figures to be in the playoff mix at season’s end. The Panthers lost to Centerville 27-26 on Sept. 8.
Wayne and Centerville, which are 3-1 and 4-0, respectively, compete in Division I, Region 3 along with the Panthers. Liberty is in Division I, Region 2.
Patriots coach Steve Hale was equally impressed with North, which bounced back from its only loss by blowing out Westerville Central 42-3 on Sept. 15.
“They’re very athletic,” Hale said. “Their quarterback (Jimmy Weirick) is amazing. He makes plays after he scrambles and makes pinpoint throws, which is going to present some problems. I see some of the same guys they had last year on offense. They like to spread it around and get their athletes out in space.”
Weirick has completed 48 of 94 passes for 786 yards with nine touchdowns and just two interceptions and has rushed for 223 yards and six scores.
Ty Wiley leads the Panthers’ receiving corps with 18 catches for 310 yards and three touchdowns, and Chris Scott, Jaylon Baylor and Tyler Foster all have two touchdown receptions.
The Panthers led Westerville Central 35-3 at halftime and limited the Warhawks to 66 total yards as linebackers Nick Giardina (seven tackles), Ben Johnson (three tackles for loss) and Eli Davis (2.5 tackles for loss) led the defense.
“We really just liked how our kids responded as a team after a really disappointing loss at Centerville,” Hillerich said. “You find out who your team is. We feel really good about where we’re at.”
Liberty quarterback Mitchell Okuley completed 19 of 24 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 34 yards against Davidson. On the season, he has completed 55 of 93 passes for 641 yards with 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
Against Davidson, Okuley connected with wide receiver Ben Roderick seven times for 78 yards and a touchdown. Mitchell Kershner had seven catches for 50 yards and Johnny Wiseman had three receptions for 59 yards and one score.
Roderick has 16 receptions for 201 yards and six touchdowns on the season.
Liberty’s top running back is Matthew Webb, who has rushed for 290 yards and three touchdowns and has five catches.
Third-year starting linebacker and Michigan State commit Edward Warinner did not play against Davidson because of an injury and remains questionable for the North game, according to Hale.
Despite Warinner’s absence, Liberty held Davidson, a triple-option run-oriented team, to 3.8 yards per carry and 213 yards overall.
Hale has been pleased with a Patriots defense that includes John Paolo, Nick Paolo and Skylar Wahlund at linebacker and Troy Oehler and Wiseman in the secondary.
“We were tested a little bit (against the pass) against Marysville and Wayne and we’ve had several guys step up,” Hale said. “Offensively, we thought (Okuley) threw the ball around well (against Davidson) and our offensive line played fairly well.”