After the Olentangy Liberty High School football team kept Gahanna at bay during a 17-14 regional semifinal victory Nov. 10 at Westerville North, Lions coach Bruce Ward complimented the way the Patriots' linebackers "flow fast."
That unit, which features seniors John Paolo, Skylar Wahlund and Edward Warinner, will try to be at its best again this week as the Patriots go for their second consecutive Division I, Region 2 championship.
Second-seeded Liberty faces top-seeded Toledo Whitmer in the regional final Friday, Nov. 17, at Findlay.
"I give our guys the credit," Warinner said. "Our defense played pretty tough (against Gahanna). We've got to clean some things up, but we're excited to be playing another week."
The Patriots limited the passing efficiency of Gahanna quarterback Mike Lowery and turned him into a scrambler.
A first-team all-district honoree who passed for 2,379 yards and 22 touchdowns, Lowery was held to 16-for-32 for 113 yards and one touchdown while rushing for 69 yards on 14 carries. He had averaged just 3.9 carries over the Lions' first 11 games.
The latest task for Liberty's defense will be Whitmer sophomore quarterback Riley Keller, a 6-foot-1, 190-pounder who already has offers from Toledo and Mississippi but likely will gather many more over the next 18 months.
He visited Ohio State's Friday Night Lights camp last July and was on Scout.com's list of 150 "names to know" from the 2020 class. During the regular season, Keller completed 112 of 198 passes for 1,711 yards with 21 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Other key offensive threats for Whitmer include junior running back Kobe Myers and senior wide receivers Jasean Rader and Patrick Mappe.
Rader caught two touchdown passes during the final 3 minutes, 2 seconds as Whitmer beat fifth-seeded Olentangy 32-29 in a regional semifinal Nov. 10 at Tiffin. The Panthers improved to 12-0.
Adding difficulty to the Liberty defense's task is that senior free safety and first-team all-district selection Johnny Wiseman, who has six interceptions, isn't expected to play after getting ejected for targeting in the fourth quarter against Gahanna.
While senior Troy Oehler and junior Grant Wilson are at cornerback and a group of players that includes senior Lucas Campbell and junior Nick Paolo sees time at strong safety, junior Mitchell Kershner is among those who could try to fill the void at free safety.
"We just expect (Wiseman) to be a leader this week," coach Steve Hale said. "(Whitmer is) real athletic and their quarterback is the real deal. Our linebackers have been doing well as a group. (Warinner) is always where he's supposed to be."
The Patriots, who are 10-2, beat the Panthers 49-21 in the first round of the Division I, Region 1 playoffs in 2014 in the only previous meeting between the programs.
The Liberty-Whitmer winner advances to a state semifinal Nov. 24 against an opponent to be determined. The other regional finals pit Cleveland St. Ignatius against Mentor in Region 1, Pickerington Central against Pickerington North in Region 3 and Cincinnati St. Xavier against Cincinnati Colerain in Region 4.
"Going back to the regional finals, there's nothing better than this," junior wide receiver Ben Roderick said.
Whitmer gave up just 10.7 points per game during the regular season before edging eighth-seeded Lorain 31-28 on Nov. 3 and rallying past Olentangy.
Against Gahanna, Roderick got loose for touchdown receptions of 15 and 56 yards and Dante Leary kicked a 29-yard field goal.
Roderick has 37 receptions for 455 yards and 13 touchdowns on the season.
Liberty's game plan against the Lions was based around the power rushing of senior running back Matthew Webb, who carried 30 times for 119 yards.
Junior quarterback Mitchell Okuley had 15 carries for 82 yards and completed 10 of 15 passes for 127 yards. He has thrown for 26 touchdowns on the season, with 16 coming over the past six games.
Liberty has won seven in a row since losing 42-0 on Sept. 22 to Pickerington North.
"We've been able to get a lot more efficient on offense," Hale said.