Both the Pickerington North and Reynoldsburg high school football teams have felt at least some sense of pride from what they accomplished during the season’s first half.
Neither is taking much time to bask in the experience, though, knowing what lies ahead.
Raiders coach Buddy White calls the OCC-Ohio Division a “meat grinder,” and his team begins the league schedule Friday, Sept. 29, at North in a matchup of 4-1 teams.
In his first season as Panthers coach, Nate Hillerich will be getting his first experience in OCC-Ohio play, but he’s witnessed enough to feel like he’s got a grasp of what to expect, at least regarding Reynoldsburg.
“We’ve seen them in the summer, and obviously it’s kind of a rivalry game down the street,” Hillerich said. “Their athletes can match up with anybody in the state. They’re a team that has the capability to beat anybody on any given night.
“With our schedule, we’ve got to forget about (what we’ve accomplished so far) and get ready for (this) week with our (league). Reynoldsburg’s a good football team, and our No. 1 goal is to win our league.”
North is coming off a 42-0 victory Sept. 22 at Olentangy Liberty in which it outgained a 2016 Division I state semifinalist 377-45 and forced four turnovers.
Last season, the Panthers finished third (3-2) in the league behind Pickerington Central (5-0) and Lancaster (4-1) while the Raiders were fourth (2-3).
Reynoldsburg beat Westerville Central 41-31 on Sept. 22.
“We’re real happy for our guys because we faced adversity (against Westerville Central), and going into the fourth quarter we were behind,” White said. “We put a couple touchdowns together in the fourth quarter. They had us on our heels quite a bit, but we came up with plays when we had to have them. I’m real excited for our guys.”
One of the biggest keys to the matchup could be how the Panthers’ linebacking corps handles the Raiders’ ground game.
Reynoldsburg senior quarterback Justin Henry returned from an injury against the Warhawks and completed 12 of 24 passes for 198 yards and one touchdown, but running back Guy Cowans-Wright rushed 20 times for 156 yards and two scores to lead the way.
Senior offensive lineman Joe Boggs has committed to Ball State.
In addition to the Panthers having senior Alex Williams, a West Virginia recruit, leading the defensive line, they feature a trio of standout linebackers in senior Nick Giardina, junior Ben Johnson and freshman Jack Sawyer.
Giardina is the program’s third all-time leading tackler with 211. He is fifth in tackles for loss (24.5) and tied for fourth in sacks (8).
North’s secondary also was strong against Liberty, with senior Ball State recruit Tyler Potts and senior Tyrik Carter each returning an interception for a touchdown, Carter adding another interception and senior Marlyn Hill also picking off a pass.
“We’ve just got some tough kids and they’ve really bought into the system,” Hillerich said. “We don’t have the biggest kids on defense outside of obviously Alex Williams, who is huge, but other than that we’ve got a ton of team speed and kids that are relentless. They fly to the ball, which is what you want from the defense.”
Reynoldsburg fell behind 31-27 with 7 minutes, 13 seconds remaining against Westerville Central. Henry ran for a 2-yard touchdown with 3:25 to go, and Cowans-Wright rushed for an 8-yard score with 1:32 left.
The Raiders gave up 452 yards of offense but scored two touchdowns following fumble recoveries.
They next will try to slow down an offense that features senior quarterback Jimmy Weirick and a receiving trio of senior Ty Wiley, junior Jaylon Baylor and sophomore Chris Scott.
Weirick was intercepted three times against Liberty but just two other times this season and is 63-for-123 passing for 1,039 yards with 11 touchdowns. He’s also North’s leading rusher with 261 yards.
Wiley has 23 receptions for 456 yards and four touchdowns, Scott has 12 catches for 240 yards and two touchdowns and Baylor has 10 receptions for 117 yards and three scores. Wiley is North’s all-time leader in receiving yards with 1,664 and is third in career receptions (91) and receiving touchdowns (15).
“We’re getting ready to go into this league that takes no prisoners,” White said. “We’re not going to be able to enjoy this victory (over Westerville Central) very long. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and we accept the challenge. We’re getting ready to go into the monster’s lair and our kids are playing with confidence right now. Let’s see where we are.”