Neither Hilliard Darby High School football coach John Santagata nor his Olentangy counterpart, Mark Solis, expects to see many surprises from the other team when the Panthers visit the Braves on Friday, Aug. 24, in the season opener.
Getting to this point has been the challenge for both teams, especially Darby, which ran fewer than two dozen plays during a three-way scrimmage Aug. 11 against Olentangy Liberty and defending Division I state champion Pickerington Central because of bad weather and had only one full scrimmage, Aug. 17 against Marysville.
"That's big," Santagata said. "Those are such valuable chances to spot mistakes, correct them and move on to the next week. Losing those scrimmages, we lost chances to grade ourselves. (Against Marysville), we were basically taking care of two weeks of errors. That could definitely be an advantage (for Olentangy)."
Both teams are coming off playoff appearances.
Olentangy went 8-4 last year, losing to Toledo Whitmer 32-29 in a Division I, Region 2 semifinal. Darby went 7-4, falling to Centerville 35-0 in the first round in Division I, Region 3.
Solis said he saw considerable improvements in several areas throughout the preseason, especially from a defense that is switching to a 3-4 look from a 4-3.
"We've gotten a lot better with fundamentals and knowing where to be," Solis said. "We'll have to be fundamentally sound against Darby. They'll do what they do with their flex-bone offense. We have to be sound in our schemes and definitely (with) stopping the run when they go to the option. These games have been very physical the last two years. We just have to make sure the guys don't revert back to what they've done in the past. With a 3-4, the run fits are completely different. They're getting better, but we still have work to do."
Olentangy is 7-0 all-time against Darby. This is the third consecutive season in which they have opened the season against each other after not having played since 2001.
The Braves defeated the Panthers 45-24 last year and 31-10 in 2016.
Darby returns its quarterback in junior Jack Stultz. Seniors also will play prominent roles on defense, with Jaeln Benjamin, Kris Day, Jaden Jones and Hayden Vroom in the secondary and Nick Wile at strong-side linebacker.
"Our main focus has to be making sure the offensive and defensive lines get it done," Santagata said. "We've had chances to win both of those games (the past two years) and haven't been able to finish. They're a great team to measure yourself against."
A deep group of Olentangy receivers is led by senior Caden Kaiser, who caught 51 passes for 915 yards and eight touchdowns last year. Senior tight end Ian Drummond had 37 receptions for 474 yards and six touchdowns, and senior Luke Riedel caught 36 passes for 316 yards and two scores.
According to Solis, the Braves still were trying to figure out their starting quarterback entering the week, saying the competition between senior Connor Haag and junior Trent Maddox was in "a dead heat."
"If we have to play both guys, we'll play both," Solis said. "They're both capable. It's been a good competition. It's been fun to watch."