The opening drive of the fourth quarter during his team's Division I, Region 2 semifinal Nov. 10 at Westerville North could be a teaching tool over the coming months for Gahanna Lincoln High School football coach Bruce Ward.

On third-and-2 from the Olentangy Liberty 11-yard line, a bad snap on a wildcat play carried the Patriots' Johnny Wiseman into the end zone, but he eluded the Lions' defense and found enough running room to get the exact yardage he needed for a first down.

The Lions were called for pass interference on the next play, and five plays after that Mitchell Okuley hit Ben Roderick for a 56-yard touchdown that gave Liberty a 17-14 victory.

"We had opportunities," Ward said. "They snap the ball into the end zone, (but) we miss a tackle and give up a first down. A lot of little things like that throughout the night cost us. If you want to win (in) Week 12, you've got to be at your best and we weren't."

The fact that the Lions were so close to reaching a regional championship game for the first time since 1987 is the silver lining in the equation.

Coming off a 2016 season in which it went 5-5, Gahanna beat playoff-qualifiers New Albany (40-20 on Sept. 15) and Dublin Coffman (34-32 on Sept. 22) and earned the sixth seed for the Region 2 playoffs.

After winning 38-37 in overtime Nov. 3 at third-seeded Olentangy Orange, the Lions lost to the second-seeded Patriots to finish 7-5 overall.

"Our No. 1 priority it felt like to me was to get back to the playoffs and try to make a run," junior quarterback Mike Lowery said. "We've been training since this time last year to get back to the playoffs and I believe we were prepared to play awhile after the regular season."

Lowery was held to 113 yards passing and forced to scramble for 69 yards on 14 carries against a Liberty defense that features strong linebacker play led by Michigan State recruit Edward Warinner.

The return next season of Lowery and junior running back Justus Harris are among the biggest reasons Gahanna should contend for a playoff berth a year from now.

Lowery, who was first-team all-OCC-Ohio Division and all-district, completed 187 of 313 passes for 2,379 yards with 22 touchdowns and four interceptions and also rushed for three scores.

Harris was held to 6 yards rushing on six carries against Liberty but finished with 1,016 yards and 19 touchdowns on 220 carries while adding two touchdown catches and one kickoff return for a score.

Juniors C.J. Kiss and Karter Johnson are eligible to return at tight end and junior Riley Lutsko and sophomore A'che Sanchez-Baccus should return on the line.

"I'm excited to see what we'll do and I'm confident that we'll be back (in the playoffs) next year," said Lowery, who has received interest from a list of schools that includes Cincinnati, Duke, Miami University and Ohio University. "The focus will be to be better than (this) year, and it starts in December. I think with the experience of making it to the playoffs, our mindset has changed a lot."

Gahanna, which has made three playoff appearances in Ward's four seasons, went 2-3 in the OCC-Ohio to finish fourth behind Pickerington Central (5-0), Pickerington North (4-1) and Reynoldsburg (3-2) and ahead of Lancaster (1-4) and Grove City (0-5).

Harris was first-team all-district and all-league.

Johnson, who had 15.5 tackles for loss and was first-team all-league and second-team all-district, should be back to lead the defensive line. He has offers from Cincinnati, Indiana and Kentucky.

Seniors Jerome Buckner (WR/DB) and David Miller (WR/DB/QB) were second-team all-district and all-league. Junior David Williams (LB) was second-team all-league and special mention all-district, junior LaCarr Trent (DB) was special mention all-league and all-district and senior Justin Green (OL) was honorable mention all-league.

Buckner finished with 66 catches for 842 yards and 13 touchdowns, rushed for a 62-yard score against Liberty, saw key action in the secondary and was one of the team leaders in yardage on punt and kickoff returns. He has eight scholarship offers.

Miller had 53 receptions for 723 yards and seven touchdowns and rushed for one score.

Other key seniors included Joel Andujar (WR), Cameren Carlisle (WR/DB), Jonathan Harrington (DL) and Royon Washington (LB). Harrington has received interest from several Division II college programs.

Andujar had 21 receptions, Harrington had 15 tackles for loss and Carlisle had 58.5 tackles and two interceptions. Washington had an interception against Liberty and had 50 tackles on the season.

Among those eligible to return, Williams had 73 tackles and Trent had 34 pass deflections.

Junior Zajdi Hoxha started at linebacker for the first four games before suffering a season-ending injury.

Sophomore Travis Whittaker missed four games with injury but played a key role at linebacker during the season's second half.

Junior Dylan Kankiewicz (LB/RB) and sophomore Brian Walthaw (DB) were other contributors.

Sophomore Kobie Stillwell (K/P) averaged 35.9 yards per punt with seven inside the 20 and made 30 extra points and six field goals.

"It's a good learning experience," Ward said. "We've got to be better, and hopefully we're back here competing again next year. We were up and down all year. We dropped a couple games we thought we should have won. It was a battle all year to play consistent, and good teams play consistent."

julrey@thisweeknews.com

@UlreyThisWeek