A disappointing loss turned into a learning experience for the Olentangy Orange High School football team.
The Pioneers held an 18-point lead entering the fourth quarter against visiting Liberty on Oct. 20, only to lose 25-24 in OCC-Buckeye Division play.
The loss ended their aspirations for an unbeaten regular season and limited their chances for their first league championship since 2011.
Orange enters its regular-season finale Friday, Oct. 27, at Westerville South at 8-1 overall and 3-1 in the OCC-Buckeye. To share the league title, the Pioneers need to win and have Liberty, which is 4-0 in the OCC-Buckeye, lose to Westerville North the same night.
"We have a lot to learn from (the loss)," quarterback Luke Schmeling said. "We came in (Oct. 21) ready to go. We went in the film room and learned a lot of things we need to brush up on."
Despite the loss, the Pioneers clinched their second consecutive playoff berth, according to joeeitel.com. They were projected to be third in Division I, Region 2 this week. The top eight teams make the postseason and the top four play a first-round home game.
"We're excited," coach Zebb Schroeder said. "This is a great group and we told them in (the locker room) that this is just the beginning. We still are in the playoffs and need to keep chopping wood at this thing."
Orange will be without senior linebacker Bryce Houston for the remainder of the season after the Ohio University recruit tore the ACL and meniscus in his right knee in the fourth quarter against Liberty. He leads the Pioneers with 56 tackles and also has three sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss, one interception, four forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and five pass breakups.
South, which is 4-5 overall and 1-3 in the league, is battling for a playoff spot in Division II, Region 7. It was projected to be eighth in the region this week.
The Wildcats are led by senior Jaelen Gill, an Ohio State recruit who has rushed for 658 yards and 10 touchdowns and has 282 yards receiving and three scores.
Gill battled leg cramps throughout the second half of a 42-35 league loss to Westerville Central on Oct. 19. He rushed for 125 yards on 15 carries with a 10-yard touchdown.
"They have a good running back (Gill) that we have to lock up and they have some good, athletic players," Schmeling said. "We have to have a great week of practice. We have to be locked in and ready to go."
Michael Mansaray is another dual threat for the Wildcats with 10 receptions for 204 yards and five touchdowns and 193 yards rushing and three scores on 30 carries. Quarterback Max Barber has completed 82 of 162 passes for 1,170 yards with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Michael McLemore has 29 catches for 529 yards and four touchdowns.
"They spread you out and everyone talks about Jaelen Gill, who is one of the best players in the country, but some of their other players are under-appreciated because of how good he is," Schroeder said. "We're going to have to have a good week of practice, pick our kids up and be able to play good defense and score some points.
"In the second half, all of those little plays matter. A yard here and there matters. An angle here and there matters. They all add up."
Schmeling rushed for 120 yards on 10 carries, including a 73-yard touchdown, against Liberty. He completed 11 of 17 passes for 107 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
For the season, Schmeling is 70-for-130 passing for 950 yards with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions. Manny Anderson has 28 catches for 433 yards and five touchdowns, and Zach Harrison has eight receptions for 158 yards and four scores.
Graham Starn leads Orange with 691 yards rushing and seven touchdowns on 133 carries. Jack Applegate has 470 yards and 10 touchdowns on 77 carries.